Tag: The Butterfly Assassin

Being Yourself On Purpose

It’s Ace Week! It’s also French publication day for The Butterfly Assassin, which is super appropriate, because Isabel is asexual, so this is her week.

I’ve talked before about asexual “representation” in The Butterfly Assassin, and how there arguably… isn’t any — not if you define representation as explicit labels and discussion of a certain identity. This is a balance I’ve grappled with over the past year, wondering how much to emphasise that element of the book. The fact of the matter is, this is a book that’s all murder, no sex — an upper YA book where the most important, intense relationship is a platonic one, and where opportunities for that relationship to develop into a romantic or sexual relationship are deliberately avoided in favour of taking the narrative another path — and that, much more than labels, is what matters to me, and it’s what my younger self needed.

That doesn’t mean labels aren’t important, though, nor that Isabel’s identity will never be discussed in more depth in the series. I’m a little over halfway through the editing process for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin at the moment, having finished structural edits and with line edits coming rapidly over the horizon, and one of the things I love about this book is how it gives Isabel more space to explore who she is.

Some spoilers for book one ahead, so if you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest you go grab a copy before venturing further? (Unless you like spoilers, in which case, you do you!)

In The Butterfly Assassin, a major source of tension and conflict is the fact that Isabel has been poisoned. As such, she spends the majority of the book trying hard not to die, focused solely on survival. It is not a narrative that gives her a lot of time to start worrying about whether or not she feels sexual attraction, because it would be deeply unnecessary to her current situation.

Now. I have been told, and have gradually come to observe from my own reading, that this in itself is a pretty ace perspective. Turns out, allosexual people and characters do start thinking about sexual attraction at deeply inconvenient moments, up to and including while Trying Not To Die. Who knew! And I know from personal experience that identity crises do tend to assert themselves at times when you should really be focusing on other things; that’s why I had a gender crisis in the middle of my A-Levels, because I no longer had the brainspace to repress it.

But the fact of the matter is that Isabel is very, very good at repressing things, and not particularly prone to navel-gazing, and as such, it would never occur to her to try and put a label on an absence of certain feelings. She’s so convinced she’s messed up by her childhood that if she recognised a difference in her own behaviour compared to anyone else’s, she’d simply chalk it up to that and move on.

I think this is a common story. I think there are a lot of people whose experiences resonate with ace experiences, and might plausibly fall under that umbrella, but they will never seek out that label. They don’t need to. It isn’t relevant. Some might think the rest of the world is exaggerating about their sexual attraction; others are aware that they’re different, but have chalked it up to some other factor in their life or upbringing or current experiences.

And that’s fine. Nobody is ever obliged to use any label for anything. I find my own sexuality increasingly slippery and hard to pin down, particularly as my sense of gender shifts and matures. I still find it resonates most strongly with ace experiences, but I’m also very aware that asexuality is a spectrum, and that not everybody who sees themselves as belonging to that spectrum is in the No Attraction Ever category, nor is attraction synonymous with interest in sex.

I’m also increasingly aware that romantic attraction can be a slippery thing. To my mind, there is no objective, concrete, identifiable difference between romantic and platonic affection in terms of its expression and what it looks like to an outside observer. The difference is in what it means to the people in that relationship, and how they label it, and what it means to them. One person’s queerplatonic relationship might look identical from the outside to another person’s romantic one, but that doesn’t mean it is identical, if that’s not how those people experience it.

This … dislocation, almost, or at least separation of Objective External Perception from Concrete Labels And Terminology has been freeing. Imagine the possibilities if I say, “It doesn’t matter what you think this relationship is, to me it’s X, and that’s what matters.” Some people kiss their friends. Some people don’t kiss their romantic partners. Why are we assuming that to qualify as one thing or another, certain behaviours or actions have to be exhibited?

I’ve got sidetracked. I’m sorry. At one point I had an actual purpose in writing this post, but at this point it’s purely, “Finn muses on what asexuality and aromanticism mean to them,” and that is probably not why you’re here. Back to TBA…

Except it’s not really a sidetrack. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about seeing reader reactions to The Butterfly Assassin is how several people have said they don’t normally read books without romance, but that they didn’t feel anything was missing from mine. One person even said that it felt like the friendship hit the same beats as a romantic relationship would have done, in terms of how it grows and develops. That’s deliberate. I’d read a lot of books growing up where the cold, “emotionless” character was “humanised” by sexual attraction and romantic feelings, and I wanted to explore the possibility of platonic affection serving the same purpose, breaking through their shell. There are a lot of ways to love people; why was only one being valued?

It makes me think a lot about what people are looking for when they prioritise reading books with strong romantic elements. I know what I’m looking for when I pick up a romance novel; I’m rarely looking for it when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book. But maybe what others are seeking, when they say they want strong romance subplots, is actually just human connection, intensity of feeling, those moments when a character realises their feelings for another have broken through their walls and rules and intentions and changed how they respond to having plot happen to them. And I see no reason why you can’t get those feelings from an intense platonic friendship.

(NB: An ace protagonist doesn’t, of course, preclude the possibility of romance, because asexuality and aromanticism are not synonymous. However, as Isabel is ace/aro and those aspects of her identity are significantly entwined, in this specific case, there’s a lot of overlap, and I will sometimes use one as shorthand for another. This is not intended to erase the identities of those who are ace and not aro, or aro and not ace, but I know that my terminology sometimes blurs in ways that could seem careless, hence the clarification.)

Book two once again has one of those intense friendships at the heart of it, but there’s a difference, because it’s no longer the only friendship that Isabel has, and there is a lot more space for Isabel to start reflecting more on her place in the world around her and how she relates to the people she’s surrounded with. In book one, she’s isolated, with very few friends of her own age, almost all of whom she’s lying to. She’s only just escaped from a traumatic upbringing that, in particular, has left her isolated for the past eighteen months, forbidden to see anyone except her parents and one other person. This is not the case in the sequel.

Without wanting to give too much away before the title and cover and blurb are revealed, one of the things I like about book two is that although the narrative voice is still very much in Isabel’s head — it’s in third person, but it’s such a close third person it sometimes feels closer than first, to me — the scope of the story is broader. It’s like the camera has stepped back, and we get to see more of the city, because Isabel is living in it, engaging with it, experiencing it.

Book two gives us an Isabel who has friends, or at least colleagues — a day job, putting her in a position of interacting daily with civilians who challenge her sense of self and open her mind to new possibilities. And, yes, they are mostly queer. Again, this wasn’t a deliberate choice, or a box-ticking exercise (“okay, we need a character who uses they/them pronouns, and a character who’s gay, and a character who’s bi…”). I have very few straight cis friends, and when I come to write, I write characters who feel real to me, who look like the world I see around me. So, inevitably, they end up mostly being queer, because that’s the world I live in.

In a queernorm environment, there’s no need for anyone to come out, because nobody is ever assumed to be straight. But still, in many queernorm settings, there’s an expectation that characters will be interested in someone, even if options are less circumscribed. I didn’t want to fall into that trap, either, but I wanted to see Isabel realising for the first time that her experiences might not be Default Setting. Not to alienate her, or make her feel different, but to allow her to be herself more consciously.

One of the ways I’ve done this — and I’m excited for you to read this part — is to show Isabel picking up some of the terrible romance novels we encountered in book one, when Emma was collecting them. I hope that nobody takes this detail as me mocking Romance as a genre. I have been very public about the fact that queer historical romance novels got me through the pandemic, and if I poke fun at cliché Mills & Boon style romance novels here, it’s done with love. I had a lot of fun coming up with awful in-universe premises (an assassin who falls for their target! two assassins from rival guilds who have a meet-cute over a dead body!) and I knew, as soon as they showed up in book one, that I would want to come back to them properly.

(Psst. If anyone wants to write one of these as fanfic, it would delight me. Or, you know, if anyone wants to pay me to write one of these, I will do so with glee and gusto. Just know that it would be intentionally Extremely Cringe.)

So. Isabel reads terrible in-universe romance novels. (Her friends and colleagues are quick to assure her that good romance novels do exist; she continues to stubbornly read the terrible ones, because Emma collected them, so they mean something.) And she doesn’t get it. And she turns to her flatmate, to her friends, and is like, “Explain this to me.”

The thing I love about this is that it gives us space for Isabel to examine her feelings in a hypothetical situation — but it also lets her explore them with others who, unexpectedly, share some of those feelings. One of the characters she talks to is aro, but bisexual. One of them is ace/aro. Neither of them use labels, because they don’t exist within the setting in the same way that they do in our world, but they’re able to give Isabel perspectives that help her understand herself.

That is representation, for me. Not necessarily specific labels that map directly onto real-world experiences, although these can be helpful for some, life-saving for others. But to have those perspectives, those new ways of seeing the world that allow you to understand your place in a continuum and then explore it deliberately and consciously… I think that’s what really matters, when it comes down to it. And whether readers relate to Isabel’s place in that continuum or not, I think seeing it is part of what allows us all to be ourselves more consciously.

In fact, some of the characters that were the most helpful to me in figuring out I was trans were not trans characters. It was those who made me say, Oh, that’s NOT me, that really helped solidify things. Experiences that I couldn’t relate to that made me prod and poke for the reasons why. But it was also characters in settings where they didn’t have words for things, because I wasn’t ready to put labels on things, and I wasn’t willing to commit to a label. There’s something gentler about seeing yourself reflected without necessarily acknowledging first what that would mean.

In the end, what is any coming out process, what is any exploration of gender or sexuality, but learning who we are and starting to do it on purpose?

Book two shows Isabel learning a lot more about who she is, and doing some of it on purpose — even the parts she doesn’t necessarily like about herself. And her purposeful self is ace/aro, and feels platonic affection so intensely that it can break through all her walls and repression, because there’s never been only one kind of love.

I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with you.

In the meantime, you can grab The Butterfly Assassin now. In English or in French. Which is super exciting to me, even though my French is appalling.

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.

Mentor, Master, and Medievalist

A few wee disconnected bits of news for you today, because a lot’s been happening lately. I’ve mentioned most of this on Twitter already, but it can be hard to keep track of that kind of thing, so here it is, in convenient blog post format. (I miss the internet of the 2010s, when everything was in convenient blog post format…)

The first is that I’m mentoring with Rogue Mentor! I’ve wanted to mentor for a while — I credit my experiences as a mentee in Author Mentor Match with having taken The Butterfly Assassin from “okay” to “publishable”, and I’ve been wanting to give back to the writing community. Rogue Mentor is a chilled out, low-key programme with no time limits or high-pressure showcases, and I’m really looking forward to getting to work with an author to take their book to the next level.

I’m looking for someone who has reached the point where they don’t think they can take their book any further on their own, and they just need another perspective / pair of eyes to make it click so that it’s ready for querying. I’ll be there for my mentee through as much of that process as they want me to be, and honestly, I see this as a chance to make a new writing friend, too, Mentorship can create a sense of hierarchy, but we’re all just people, some of us slightly further ahead in our writing journeys.

So, if you have a book that you know isn’t quite ready but you don’t know how to get it there by yourself, maybe consider submitting to me, and we can figure it out together. Even if you’ve never considered a mentorship programme before, why not think about it? Sometimes all you need is somebody to ask the right questions, so that you have to come up with the answers. Everyone needs a “But why?” reader, and when it comes to character motivations and worldbuilding, I like to think I’m pretty good at that. Plus, it’s invaluable to have someone who has been through the querying / submission process before you, to help you gauge what’s “normal” and keep calm during the process, so if that’s a direction you’re interested in, you might benefit from submitting.

My MSWL is here, but I wouldn’t say it’s an exhaustive list of the only types of books I’m interested in. If I haven’t mentioned something, and it’s not on my anti-MSWL either, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not interested in it. Just means I don’t know, yet, that I’m interested in it. Checking out my last blog post, where I shared my recent reading habits and preferences, might help give you an idea how likely I am to enjoy something. If I don’t seem like a great fit, do try one of the other Rogue Mentors! There are people looking for all sorts of genres and books, and they might be someone who’ll love yours.

You can submit to me during the April 22-25 submission window, and we’ll start working together in early June. (Mentee announcements are 26th May, which is my publication day, so I’ll probably be slightly busy that first week.)

Please do consider submitting! I’d be particularly excited to have a UK/Ireland-based mentee, but I’m open to anyone who has a book that I might click with.


The second piece of news is that at the end of May, I will be at the International Literature Festival in Dublin for my first panel as a newly-hatched baby author! Timed perfectly for two days after The Butterfly Assassin comes out, it’ll be a brand new experience for me, and I’m… slightly terrified.

I’ll be on a panel with Maura McHugh, who writes comics with folkloric/mythological influences. We’ll be talking about dark stories, monstrosity (of both the human and the beastie variety; The Butterfly Assassin has no actual monsters, but it certainly has monstrous humans), and all manner of things like that; I’ll probably end up talking about medieval Irish lit, too, so it promises to be an entertaining one.

Full details of the event are here. It’s on the 28th May, which is a Saturday. If you’re in Dublin, or close enough to get there, it would be wonderful to see you there! I’ll also be visiting some bookshops on the Sunday, so that’s definitely the weekend to catch me if you’re Ireland-based.


Speaking of Ireland, I was in Cork last week for my MA graduation ceremony, and I’m now officially a Master of Early and Medieval Irish. It was lovely to be back there; I took the opportunity to go to a friend’s talk about medieval Irish literature, as well as to see some parts of the area I never got the chance to see as a student. It was strange being back in the city now that everything has opened up so much, because there were Covid restrictions throughout my time living there. The spectre of Covid still lingers — my supervisor couldn’t be at graduation due to testing positive — but all in all, it was a very different Cork from the quiet, closed-up city I mainly experienced.

A selfie of me wearing a black mortarboard and a black graduation grown with a blue and green hood over an orange jumper and a white shirt. I am a white person with a buzz cut and orange-tinted glasses. I'm smiling at the camera. In the background are shelves of antique books in grill-fronted cupboards.

Many people wanted to know what’s next for me, and whether I’m going to do a PhD. As I’ve said before, I only want to do a PhD if I have a thesis topic in mind that excites me — not just for the sake of it. Since I don’t yet, I’m taking a little break from academia. But, I’m working on adapting some of my MA work into articles and papers, and there are a few research projects I’d like to explore as an independent scholar, so that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all quiet from me on the medievalist front. First steps will be to figure out how to become a Reader at the British Library, so that I can actually access materials… friends with library benefits are all very well, but a nerd cannot work from scanned PDFs alone.

As that suggests, I’m going to be staying in London for at least the next year, and probably longer. I’m about to move house again, for the third time in six months, and this time, I’m hoping to be there for a good while. Maybe not long enough to make it worth shifting all of my books over… but long enough to bring more than a shelf’s worth. I hope. It’ll be a new corner of London for me, and I’m looking forward to exploring, and trying to put down some roots and be part of a community.

So that’s what’s coming up for me: a house move, a gradual process of getting my life in order in a new location, and a slow ramp up in book events as publication (now only six weeks away!) draws ever closer. And, hopefully, amidst all that: a mentee, and the chance to be part of the writing community from a new direction, too. Join me! It’s going to be an interesting few months.


With only six weeks to go until The Butterfly Assassin is released, now is a great time to pre-order. We have a subtly-altered cover (check out the Books page for that) and I’m excited to see the finished copies which will also have a very funky spine… 👀

Control And Recovery

You would think, after eight years in a perpetual yo-yo of decline and recovery, that I would know how to write about recovery. I don’t. On this occasion, recovering from top surgery and a knee injury and pandemic-induced inactivity simultaneously, there’s plenty of material. But some of it’s gross, and some of it’s boring. Some of it is a story of anxiety (“Is this healing correctly? Should it look like that?”), and some of it is a story of determination (daily walks getting slowly longer as I test my ability to walk without a cane). Sometimes, it’s staring into a mirror wondering whether I’ve always been this wonky, or whether I need to go back to the osteopath because my spine’s gone twisty again. None of it makes for a tidy narrative or an inspirational story.

Here’s the part that’s a story: three years on the NHS gender clinic waiting list and no sign of a first appointment, so I went private for top surgery, because selling The Butterfly Assassin gave me the money to do it. And that’s narratively significant and tidy, because The Butterfly Assassin is a story about struggling for control over your body and your life, and this was a form of taking back some of that control. It’s also a book I first wrote during the summer of 2014, around the same time I was having my initial gender crisis. These facts are probably not a coincidence.

The rest is messier. The rest is about balancing my squeamishness, my fear of being visibly trans in an increasingly hostile world, and the fact that surgery cost two-thirds of my yearly income with the fact that I needed to feel at home in my own skin, in an urgent way that wasn’t compatible with the absurd NHS waiting lists. The rest is private: my choices, my anxiety, my body. No matter how the media likes to pretend that trans lives must be endlessly subjected to public debate and examination.

The knee injury, though, I can talk about that. I hurt it in October, and since then my walking has been limited to what I can manage with a cane. My reliance on it has gradually reduced — initially I could hardly walk at all — but I was still using the cane when I travelled for surgery, and my inability to lean on it without aggravating my chest afterwards forced me to focus on rehabilitating the knee. There’s a lot of that, when you have hypermobile joints that perpetually injure themselves. Decline and recovery, decline and recovery, a constant process of rebuilding and relearning and reshaping.

So I’ve been going for walks, because they’re the only exercise I can manage. The unseasonably warm spring weather has helped, making it easier to motivate myself to leave the house, although there are still days where I’m tempted to stay in bed all day. But I force myself out. Sometimes, the walks are short: up the park, a quick circuit of the Pokéstops, taking over the gyms again if somebody’s kicked me out, and then home to recover. Sometimes they’re longer, not always intentionally, as I go a street or two beyond my usual circuit and then drawn further afield by curiosity to see what I’ll find.

Two things have made these walks bearable, even at the beginning when they were brief and slow and required frequent rest-breaks. The first is that I’m living in a new area, and so even a circuit of the streets will bring me sights I’ve never seen before, rather than the dreary familiarity of an area where I’ve lived for years. Novelty creates excitement, even when the novelty is just a different block of flats and row of shops. Since I’m due to move again next month (I’ve begun to feel like I will never not be moving house), there won’t be time for this area to become drearily familiar, and instead I have a sense of urgency, like I need to make the most of it while I’m here.

The other is Pokémon Go. I know: it’s 2022, not 2016. But in 2016, downloading Pokémon Go did wonders for my fitness, prompting me to take that extra digression on the way home just to loop in a couple of extra Pokéstops, rather than always taking the shortest route. It helped me build my stamina and strength, something that’s essential to managing my hypermobility. I stopped playing a while back, but last year downloaded it again to try and motivate myself to leave the house more often. It didn’t work very well then — it helped a little, but then I hurt my knee, so I couldn’t go out — but now it’s coming into its own.

Walking slowly, pausing often, and sticking only to familiar routes where I won’t accidentally find myself too far from home are boring limitations on an ordinary walk. But Pokémon Go makes them easier to bear. I walk slowly, so that gives me time to catch the Pokémon I pass. I’ll pause at a gym to reclaim control of it, giving myself a chance to rest and lower my heartrate before I continue. And I’m always looking at a map of the area, so it’s easier to find my way back when I stray off course.

It has become — in a strange kind of way — an accessibility aid. This game, which was not designed for me, and which favours those who can walk significant distances and regularly, is helping me to manage my disabilities and rehabilitate an injury that has plagued me for months. It makes it worth putting my shoes on just to manage a 15-minute walk, because at least that’ll help maintain my streak of visiting Pokéstops. It has, unexpectedly, gamified recovery.

The game has its challenges and problems. The repetitive movements aren’t great for my hands, and staring down at my phone probably isn’t doing great things for my neck either. But my knee is improving. The other day, I managed to walk for ninety minutes, which I haven’t done in months. My mind feels clearer for it, too: an hour each day away from Twitter and the endless news cycle of doom and despair, the rising cost of living and the spread of virulent transphobia and the war in Ukraine and the perpetually growing COVID figures…

It’s frustrating, when people turn out to be right that fresh air and exercise help. Partly because I’m a creature of the indoors at the best of times, and partly because I don’t always have a choice about my ability to experience those things. For months my knee has kept me trapped, unable to walk further than 10 minutes from home in case I can’t get back again, and no matter how much I wanted to go out and exercise, I couldn’t. Anxiety quickly begins to close in when you feel you’ve lost all sense of control over how you manage it.

But now the winter is coming to an end. The days are getting longer, and the air is getting warmer, and I, like the flowers, am slowly coming back to life again. Slowly getting some colour back, and raising my head to the sun. One gentle walk at a time.

I’m beginning to feel hopeful now that when I’m allowed to dance again, once the post-surgery restriction on cardio has been lifted, I might actually be able to. I’m beginning to look forward to choreographing, to having space to dance in a way that I haven’t since the start of the pandemic. Getting my rhythm back. Expressing myself in a way that doesn’t need words. This time, without having to strap myself into a painful, over-tight sports bra before I start.

With every day that passes, as I get stronger and as my chest heals, I begin to feel that little bit more at home in my own skin. And it’s not body positivity per se. My body and I will always have our wars, particularly over its inability to digest anything I might actually want to eat. But it’s body neutrality. It’s recognition of the self. It’s glancing in the mirror and going, “Oh, yeah, that’s me.” Flaws and all. Rather than feeling caught in a trap, caged in by something I don’t have control over and can’t relate to.

The Butterfly Assassin is a book about struggling for control over your body and your life. About wanting autonomy when you’re losing even the ability to function on a day-to-day basis. About trying to find a balance between surrender and stubbornness: when to ask for help, and when to go it alone. In the eight years since I first drafted it, I’ve lived that over and over, through different periods of decline and their subsequent eras of recovery, and I know that recovery will never be ‘final’, but always an ongoing process. That’s what chronic means. It’s never just one injury, one surgery: it’s a dozen small things and all their effects.

Still, I feel hopeful now that when the book comes out, in two months, it’ll be a much stronger version of me who is there to greet it. Not the hermit-like winter me, kept trapped by pain, but the version of me that takes a slightly longer walk every day, and feels my body remembering what it feels like to do what I want it to do.

Maybe I’ve learned to write about recovery after all. Or maybe it’s the kind of thing you relearn every time, the way I relearn how to walk, the way I regain my strength. An endless cycle. A perpetual process of becoming myself, and claiming my own body.


The Butterfly Assassin will be released on the 26th of May. You can pre-order it now.

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 ;)

Letters From The Past

The first email I got this year was from myself.

I’d written it in July 2012, addressed to the Me of 2022, and scheduled it to arrive in the future. It didn’t come as a complete surprise: I knew I’d written the letter, because I’d been wondering, recently, where I’d saved it. There were a few of them in total, written between 2012 and 2015, all to be read in 2022 (because it was ten years after the first, not because the year was special). But I wasn’t expecting the email, and I suppose on that front, my past self is lucky that I never deactivated my old email addresses despite changing my name.

In this first letter, my sixteen-year-old self speculated about what I might have done in the past ten years, and also tried to give me some advice. This had the weird effect of feeling like I was being patronised by myself, although at least younger me was self-aware enough to know that there was no way I’d be taking any advice from a teenage version of myself. Still, it was a snapshot of my expectations for my future, and one that managed to surprise me despite thinking I knew my past self quite well.

It was funny to see the kind of things I wasn’t sure if I’d remember. I made a reference to Brave New World, then wondered if I’d get it, and supposed that if I did, it was either because I hadn’t read many more books, or because I’d reread it recently. Well, I’ve probably read well over a thousand books since I wrote that letter, and I absolutely couldn’t tell you when I last read Brave New World, but I still remember the helicopters, so sixteen-year-old me needn’t have worried on that front.

Some of my teenage self’s expectations were predictable. “Published? I really hope so. If not, I wonder what happened. Did you stop writing? Give up on your dreams?” I want to say: not yet, give me a few months, come back to me in June and I’ll have a different answer for you, I never stopped, I didn’t give up. I want to tell my younger self that sometimes things take much, much longer than you were expecting. I had high expectations for myself as a teen writer; I was convinced I’d be published before I was twenty, or at least not long afterwards. (You can imagine the crisis I had on my twentieth birthday when I realised that definitely wasn’t going to happen.)

Then my younger self gives me some advice that reminds me exactly how young sixteen really is. “You know, scrapping teenage fantasy doesn’t mean giving up on everything you ever wanted to do, it just means being realistic about it. If you’re still writing, but you have a day job and you’re struggling to find the time, remember – if you really want something, really really, then you’ll get it. Eventually.”

If only the world actually worked like that. If only wanting was all you needed to ensure success. I know what I meant: I know I was trying to encourage myself not to give up, even if things didn’t take the path I was hoping they would. But I was writing this from the point of view of a mostly able-bodied, mentally stable teenager. Becoming disabled and grappling with my mental health has left me with a very different perspective — that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want something or how hard you work, because it will be taken from you. The hardest lesson I ever learned as a teenager was that determination and willpower aren’t enough and you can’t actually overcome every barrier in life just by trying hard enough.

The same naivety is visible later in the letter: “I hope you’re still writing. And dancing. Whether or not you’re a dancer or a dance teacher – and if you’re not, DON’T think of that as failure! – I hope you’re still using that gift somehow.” It’s funny: my sixteen-year-old self had such high expectations for me as a dancer, despite the fact that I’d only recently returned to classes. I really thought I might be able to do vocational training one day, or become a teacher. These days, I’m trying to gradually rebuild enough strength to even do a barre, after being kept out of the studio for the best part of two years by the pandemic and a cascading series of injuries.

And hey, I’m not supposed to think of it as a failure that I didn’t achieve my dreams in that regard. Which, well, I wasn’t, but I appreciate the reassurance anyway — and maybe my younger self would have been proud of some of the performances I’ve done in the intervening years, even if they wouldn’t quite be able to fathom how it feels to have a left knee determined to stop me dancing. I know they can’t imagine that, because of the way sixteen-year-old me went on to tell me I couldn’t give it up now, and should start classes again if I’d quit. Again with the assumption that all anything requires is determination.

It’s strange, to be reminded that once upon a time I trusted my body to still be able to do what I wanted it to in the future. It never even occurred to me in 2012 that it might be my health, not my choices, that changed my plans.

At least there’s one regard in which I wouldn’t have disappointed my past self: “I wonder what you did at uni. Was it ASNaC? Or did you go a bit more normal and do, like, English or something? Please don’t say you did something normal. I’m disappointed in you if you did.” With a BA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and an MA in Early and Medieval Irish, I can definitely promise my younger self that I didn’t do something normal at university.

This anxiety about abandoning my teenage weirdness pervades these letters. Letters plural, because although I did go looking for the file containing the others, I didn’t need to: the 2013 letter showed up in my inbox this morning.

The 2013 letter is an interesting one, written maybe two weeks before I injured my wrists and temporarily lost the use of my hands, developing chronic pain that still plagues me to this day. I’m much harder on myself in that one: rather than simply wondering whether I’d managed to get anything published yet, I told myself, “I’m disappointed if you haven’t made it to successful author status yet. You better have published a few novels though. I mean, I’m seventeen and I’ve completed 12 first drafts and written Watching nine times, so you legitimately have no excuse for not doing anything. You can just dig them out and edit them, right?”

Harsh. But I get it, I really do. Seventeen-year-old me had spent the year writing intensively, averaging about 90k a month. I never stopped. Every time I finished a book I’d start another one, barely resting in between, and I had half a dozen more lined up in my head to work on. It was like I couldn’t stop, until the moment my hands went caput and I was forced to. Of course I wanted to know it was worth something, that it went somewhere, that I wasn’t wasting my time. I was sacrificing my time — and my health — at the altar of writing, and I wanted an answer.

This letter, written two weeks before my injury, shows again that hubris of able-bodied youth: “you legitimately have no excuse”. Would I have said the same if I knew I was going to spend the next year using voice recognition because I couldn’t type? That I would be having to reconstruct my entire sense of self because I lost a huge chunk of my personality, social life, and dreams when I lost the ability to play music?

No excuse. What a letter to leave for your future self. Again, I leap to defensiveness: come back to me in a few months, I’m trying, I didn’t give up. But I know it isn’t this me that past me is talking to, really. It’s that me. It’s the version of me that I was pushing and pushing until the moment I snapped.

Throughout the letter, there are references to fandom and nerdiness (I was really into Hannibal at the time, apparently), bookended by speculation about whether I’d get the references, whether I’d know what I was talking about. It’s like I thought nine years would be long enough to forget everything about my adolescence. And that’s what I mean about the anxiety about losing my weirdness. I think the fact that most of the adults I knew weren’t interested in these things made me think that as an adult, I wouldn’t be either.

I was seventeen, and at seventeen you’re in this weird, nebulous, liminal state where nobody can decide whether to treat you like a child or an adult. You’re an adult when they want you to make choices and take responsibility; a child when they don’t want to have to listen to you. In this letter, I can see those pressures weighing on me, this fear that if I wanted to be ‘grown up’ I would have to let go of all the things that made me, well, me. The bizarre hopes and dreams, the niche interests, the nonconformity… I was even worried whether future me would still be queer, or whether that would genuinely have turned out to be a phase.

(It has not.)

“Please tell me you followed through with SOMETHING you wanted to do as a teenager,” I begged my future self, because apparently nothing scared me like the idea of becoming a “straight, married, normal person with an office job”. And while in hindsight it is hilarious that both of these letters, 2012 and 2013, wonder if 2022!me is married, I can’t help but feel sad for my younger self, who didn’t have a roadmap for their future. I didn’t know how to imagine me as an Adult Who Stayed Weird, because I didn’t know anyone like me. Just as I didn’t really know what a queer future would look like, because I didn’t know any older queer people who might offer me alternative paths to follow.

Both of these emails were scheduled on the same day, in early July 2013, which means I don’t think my 2014 and 2015 letters will be showing up in my inbox over the next couple of days. But I dug them out anyway, and the mood there is very different.

The 2014 letter was written in January of that year, so it’s only a few months later. Still, that version of me feels much older. Much sadder, too: midway through one of the hardest years of my life, grappling with pain and new limitations on my body and my hopes for the future. Maybe that’s what made my eighteen-year-old self so much kinder than their younger counterpart. Eighteen-year-old me had learned that the pressure to live up to your younger self’s expectations could be crushing, and they didn’t want that for me.

They wrote, “I think what I want really though is for you to be you. I’ve spent a lot of time clinging on to dreams that were broken and worthless instead of finding new ones and I don’t want you to do the same thing so, if you can, just be you. Write books if that’s what you do (and I hope it is), but don’t feel like you have to because your eighteen-year-old self would be disappointed if you didn’t.”

Eighteen-year-old me had learned that you can’t keep clinging to something that’s no longer what you want, just because you wanted it for a very long time in the past. They’d learned that sometimes plans change, and it’s not within your control, but if you keep trying to stick to the original map once the road has been redirected, you’re going to end up stuck in a bog somewhere.

Eighteen-year-old me was also less focused only on what I might personally have achieved. They were thinking about the world: “I hope the world is a better place for you. I hope there’s a better Minister for Education than Gove, and not everything is about straight white dudebros, and that the world isn’t so cissexist and heteronormative…” It’s interesting to see these glimpses of my political concerns from early 2014, but it’s tough to imagine writing back to my younger self and telling them how much worse so many things have got.

Not everything is about straight white dudebros, at least: books especially are far, far more diverse than they were in 2014, particularly in YA, and my current self has access to stories than 2014!me couldn’t even imagine picking up from a mainstream bookshop. But the world is a darker place, overshadowed by the pandemic and the government’s perpetual mixture of incompetence and corruption, dogged by climate change, and punctuated by widespread mainstream transphobia in the media. How can I tell my eighteen-year-old self that? How can I take away their hope that the future would be a better place?

I can’t, of course, but it’s a sobering thought.

And finally, we come to my last letter. 2015. “I’m Finn, sometimes, you know,” it begins, because nineteen-year-old me wasn’t sure how to address the letter or how to sign it off, caught in the grips of an ongoing identity crisis. It goes on to wonder why I’m writing, when I have enough journal entries and poems to give my future self a pretty good picture of who I used to be, but then says, “I still kind of want to write these letters. I always think about who I’m going to be. I think it’s because I’m not so sure about who I am now.”

I can understand that. I know myself better in 2022 than I did in 2015, and certainly better than in 2012, but I still perpetually wonder about my future self. If I sat down to write a similar letter to me in 2032, what would I say? I can’t fathom a version of me who is in their mid-30s. It seems impossible. Absurd, even, and any letter I write now would surely feel as childish and far removed from myself in 2032 as the letter from 2012 does now. I know people who have 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plans for their futures, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of what I want to do that: I can’t work towards a goal I can’t visualise.

That’s something I have in common with my nineteen-year-old self, I suppose, but not with my seventeen-year-old self, who thought the biggest risk to my dreams was me abandoning them, and not life getting in the way.

When I wrote this letter in 2015, I had just been told I might have coeliac disease, and was grappling with the idea of yet another health issue to work around. I hoped future me would “beat” my disabilities, but I said I’d understand if I didn’t. If it all got too much, and I took to my bed. Well, I haven’t given up on anything much. But I do spend a lot of time in my bed, and I guess at nineteen I understood that. The fatigue was beginning to close in already.

There’s one thing, however, that really stands out from that letter: “I’m working on the Moth Trilogy at the moment. Book one is proving more difficult than ever, but I drew a new map of Espera today, and I’m pretty proud of it. I hope you’ve done something with these books, because they are taking up a lot of my thought power and energy. If you haven’t, though, I can only hope it’s because you’ve found something else worthwhile to work on.”

The Moth Trilogy became The Butterfly Assassin. The professionally-designed map that will be in the final book is based on the one I drew the day I wrote this letter. Book one may have been “proving more difficult than ever”, and it may have taken another six years to wrangle it into shape, but I got there.

I got there, I want to write back, it was worth the thought power and energy, it was worth the time, it was worth all the other books I wrote and abandoned, you were right.

2015 is the last of these letters, and the one most open to the possibility of changing. I was a self in flux, and I knew I would continue to change. I asked myself whether I’d ever followed through on some of my plans. If I hadn’t, was it because I was too scared, or because I’d found a different path that made me happier? It echoed the post I wrote a few weeks ago, about trying to make my choices based on love, not fear. It seems I’ve understood this tension for longer than I realised — and that I knew sometimes I need a reminder to consider why I’m actually doing or avoiding something.

From my sixteen-year-old self, who couldn’t really imagine giving up on any of my current writing projects, to my nineteen-year-old self, who had accepted that I might move on but really hoped they’d go somewhere, I can see a shift in how my teenage selves perceived future me, and what that says about how they perceived themselves.

Two weeks after writing 2013’s letter, I was forced to face the fact that we cannot predict our future. That sometimes our bodies let us down, and our plans become impossible, and it doesn’t matter how much we want it, that doesn’t mean we can have it. 2014 and 2015’s letters reflect that knowledge. They make fewer demands of my future, but they offer soft hopes: that I won’t have given up or abandoned my dreams, but found better ones. That I’ll have moved on, rather than walked away.

What I learned between sixteen and nineteen was that you don’t always get a choice about which of your dreams you’re able to keep pursuing. Sometimes, things fall by the wayside because of circumstances outside of your control. But sometimes, you move on because you’ve found something better. You set aside an old dream, and create a new one; you shelve a book, and write another. And that’s okay. Good, even. Because you can’t always be trying to live up to the expectations of your younger self, who didn’t know what you know now, who wasn’t who you are now.

But sometimes, your younger self really is the foundation on whom your adult self is built. And all of them, all these past selves, were hoping I would keep writing, and that I would be published by the time I read their letters. January 2022 still sees me in the pre-publication void, but I’m close. So close. By July, the ten-year anniversary of writing the first of these letters, I’ll be able to honestly say, Yes. I did it. I did what you wanted. I did what we wanted.

Even despite the year spent dictating because my hands didn’t work. Even despite abandoning all the novels my teenage self had high hopes for. Even despite not “beating” my health issues. Even despite the challenges of the publishing industry being greater than I ever imagined.

I did it. It’s my debut year. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May.

I’m pretty proud of it, said nineteen-year-old me, and honestly? So am I.


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Write It Wrong

I’ve never formally studied creative writing. I don’t have a degree in it, I’ve never been on a novel-writing course or workshopped a story — I’ve never even been on a retreat. (Although considering I’ve more than once used a 2-week self-isolation period to get a head start on a project before being released back into the world, maybe that counts…)

This is fine: you don’t need any of those things to become a writer. I sometimes wonder whether, if I’d started writing later, I’d have bought into the myth that you do; as it was, I was thirteen and invincible and the internet told me all I had to do to be a writer was write, so I did. By the time the impostor syndrome and desire for qualifications caught up with me, I had enough novels under my belt to feel reasonably confident that I could go it alone, so I studied medieval Irish instead, because that seemed a lot harder to do by yourself.

That’s not to say there’s no value to studying writing. I’m sure there is. Personally, I learned to write by doing it wrong, over and over again. The Butterfly Assassin was the fifteenth novel I wrote, and it still took seven years to get from first draft to final draft, because I got it wrong so many times. Every book that I’ve written has taught me something, and I don’t regret writing so many of them, but it’s definitely a labour-intensive way of doing things.

I tell people my early novels were bad and they say, “Oh, I’m sure they’re not as bad as you think.” I promise you, they are. While I’m occasionally a poor judge of my more recent work (I recently reread the third draft of Bard, which I wrote last year, and realised I was wrong to shelve it because that book has a lot of potential), I’m more than capable of being objective about my fourteen-year-old self’s output, and I know that they’re irredeemable. It’s fine. It was a process of learning.

I’ve always been a hands-on learner; you can tell me or show me how to do something and I’ll take in nothing until I do it myself. Maybe that’s why I never studied writing: even when I read about it, instructions and ideas don’t make sense to me until I’ve tried to apply them myself, and that usually results in me abandoning whatever I was reading to run off and write a new novel. I tried to take an online seminar last year and only got a few videos in before I got distracted with a new project. (I keep meaning to go back to it, but I never have.)

But my first drafts are a mess. Not on a sentence level — they’re pretty readable when it comes to the prose, which sometimes tricks people into thinking they’re better than they are — but on a plot level. They usually start out okay, and then somewhere in the middle they become a pile of events that don’t completely add up, leading to an abrupt and/or anticlimactic ending, and as soon as you start asking questions of the story it becomes apparent that I don’t have the answers. That’s why I tend to take such a drastic approach to editing, rewriting the book from the beginning — there’s no point fiddling with a sentence if the whole chapter might get yeeted when I change the entire plot to make something work.

Partly, my plot woes stem from the fact that I’m a pantser. Despite my best intentions, I seem incapable of plotting a book before I write it — if I do, I find myself deviating from my outline in chapter two and throwing the whole thing off course. The only way first drafts get on the page is if I start at the beginning and keep going until I get to the end, wherever it may take me along the way. Then I dismantle it in order to plot the second draft, now that I have some idea of what I’m trying to achieve.

Pantser by nature or not, sometimes you hit a point where you need an outline. Now is such a time: I have to write a synopsis of a book that isn’t written, and therefore I need to plan it. Okay, so I have a first draft, but I’m planning to completely overhaul the plot and change the ending considerably, so I have to plan it as though I don’t. As though the 98k I wrote last year was just the first outline, the bad outline, the mess I needed to make before I could do it properly.

And that’s why I’m telling you all of this, about writing things wrong as an integral part of my process, because you need to understand where I’m coming from when I say that there is nothing which activates my writing impostor syndrome like trying to outline.

I know some writers who plot their books practically to the page. They have spreadsheets. Beat sheets. They know exactly what should happen when in order to create the perfect 3-act arc (or 5-act, or whatever their chosen approach is). I live in fear of them, because my brain simply does not work like that. It’s not that I don’t think structure is important, but I’ve always just gone with my gut, relying on intuition honed by years of voracious reading.

Unfortunately, years of medieval literature have scrambled my intuition, convincing my brain that “a series of episodic combats followed by a long list of names followed by a one-page final battle where nothing really gets resolved” is an acceptable structure for a story. Which it is, if you’re an eleventh century Irishman, but for a modern novel, that stops looking like a book and starts looking like a hot mess pretty fast.

And that was fine, when I had as many drafts as I liked to get a story right — when I could just keep reworking it until the pieces clicked into place. But once you start writing professionally and start having contracts and deadlines, suddenly the whole process needs to speed up. No longer can I write a draft a year for six years before sending a book out into the world: no longer can I write by getting it wrong, over and over again, until the day I don’t.

When intuition fails me, that’s when I start to understand why people study writing. Why people like rules and advice and charts and tables. I still don’t think that’ll ever be me: I’ll read one (1) book about writing and decide that’s quite enough for me, thanks, and once again breathe a sigh of relief that my eighteen-year-old self didn’t decide to do a whole degree in it. Again: I’m sure that’s amply rewarding for some people and teaches them a lot (whether about writing or in terms of transferrable skills), but I think going down that path might have put me personally off writing forever.

So, I read a book about structure a couple of days ago, because I felt I needed the help. There comes a point in the process where you go, “Yeah, I need some assistance here,” and since nobody in the world has read the latest version of book two in this trilogy and therefore I cannot ask anyone to help me plot book three, I figured I would have to get my advice somewhere else.

It kind of helped. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head that I hadn’t entirely figured out how to get onto the page. Or at least, I had them on the page, some of them, but not in the right order. I’d spent a bunch of time talking to myself in a notebook to figure out the character motivations (my usual method of planning: I will literally ramble to myself on paper like, “Could it be X? No, that doesn’t make sense with Y. What about Z?”), but I needed a way of making the resulting plot points fit, and ensuring it was narratively satisfying. With a slightly more formal understanding of how to structure a story under my belt, I was able to come up with an approximate outline, so that’s something.

(The book about structure was Into The Woods by John Yorke. I didn’t 100% vibe with it in places, so this is a recommendation only with caveats, but I appreciated that it didn’t take a prescriptive “this is the only Right Way” approach the way so many writing books do, and also that it looked at 5-act structure rather than prioritising the more common 3-act approach. I have never clicked with 3-act structure, but five acts I can get my head around, possibly because I was a Hamlet nerd as a teenager and some things rewire your brain permanently.)

But even though it helped, and solved a problem I was wrestling with, and encouraged me to cut the oldest plotline in the book because it simply wasn’t working… reading about structure makes me stressed, and sets off alarm bells in my head. Did I do it right in The Butterfly Assassin? I ask myself (because if I didn’t, it’s too late to fix it now). What about book two, am I going to have to rework that completely? Couldn’t somebody have told me this earlier? Am I a hack, a fraud, an impostor who somehow got invited into the writer club when they really don’t know what they’re doing?

And the thing is: I do know what I’m doing, most of the time. On a gut level, running on instinct, I know how to write a story. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I have to keep telling myself that, when the impostor syndrome closes in. But that instinct-led approach means I have no idea how to explain what I’m doing, and it certainly doesn’t always fit neatly into diagrams.

That’s okay, mostly. Not everything has to fit into the diagrams. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that there are no rules that can’t be broken and there’s no method that works for everyone, or even for every book written by the same person. It’s a constant process of rediscovery and re-invention, figuring out how to write.

But. This book needs to be plotted in a particular way, and that’s the way I find hard, and that makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a very hard book to write: it has to be narratively satisfying both in its own right and as the conclusion to a trilogy; it has to wrap up its own plotlines and any loose threads from the first two books; and being a third book means it starts in a state of absolute chaos, so your usual approaches to the first act of a book don’t work and it kind of has to be structured back-to-front. Unlike a standalone book, where we start with a normal that gets disrupted, a third book following on from a cliffhanger starts with a complete mess that needs to be gradually resolved: there is no normal, and we get dropped in the deep end.

Plus, this book isn’t under contract yet, but I would very much like it to be, so I need to make it look appealing and functional right from the synopsis — something I never had to do with an unwritten book before I started doing this professionally.

So, I have to face up to the thing I’m bad at, accept that I’m bad at it, and teach myself how to do it — all while my brain screams at me that I should have learned how to do it before I tried to make a career out of this, and probably my book is going to flop and it’ll be a disaster and I should give up now. These are not helpful brainweasels to feed, and I try to avoid it, but there’s something about being six months out from your debut novel’s publication that sets them all a-chattering, and I have to say, it’s a full-time job just trying to keep them quiet most of the time.

It doesn’t help that I’m in the process of arranging my first school visit as a professional author — what a bizarre sentence to write — and was asked if I wanted to do a talk or whether I wanted it to be more of an interactive creative writing workshop. Immediately my brain went, I can’t teach anyone how to write, I barely know what I’m doing. And, well, that’s not totally true, but I’m certainly not convinced my approach is replicable.

These brainweasels, this imposter syndrome… it’s all part of the process of going from writing as a hobby to writing as a career, I think — not that I wasn’t always trying to improve, but it’s different, when somebody other than yourself will care if you mess this up. And it is a process, this transition: it’s a constant, ongoing, humbling process. No matter how well I thought I understood my approach to writing, it will change now, by necessity, because a book written under contract is a fundamentally different beast than a book written over the course of several years with nobody breathing down your neck. A book written specifically to be published, rather than a book written only with the aspiration of publication, is a different beast. There are new rules and new methods to be determined.

One of those is learning about structure. And it’s probably not the case that every book I write from now on will fit in a five-act chart before I write it (more likely I’ll write the first draft in my usual chaotic way and try and fix it afterwards, as I always do). But this book needed me to learn this, and so I did. And the next book may require me to learn something completely different, so I will.

Maybe I don’t know how to teach people about writing, because nobody taught me about writing, but I know this: it’s completely fine to learn by doing it wrong, but you have to be able to recognise when that’s what you’re doing, otherwise you’re never going to do it right. Writing this book badly only worked because I could see that it wasn’t working and was willing to make the effort to take a different approach. Without realising the problem was structure, and teaching myself how to fix it, I’d probably have just continued to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Write it wrong first. But then figure out why it’s wrong, and write it right.


Now is a great time to pre-order The Butterfly Assassin. I promise that although it took me seven years, I did eventually write it right. You can also support me by buying me a coffee.

NaNoWriMo As Productive Procrastination

It’s the seventh of November, and as I cross the 50,000-word mark on my NaNoWriMo project, I find myself thinking, again, about why it is I’m still participating in National Novel Writing Month.

This is my thirteenth year, and barring one or two exceptions, hitting 50k has never proven particularly challenging for me. This is a neutral fact, one that doesn’t make me a better (or worse) writer than anyone who struggles to crawl across the finish line or burns out around the 20k mark. I write speedy drafts, and I write a lot of them, because prose is never my problem — my problems tend to be plot problems, and so large-scale overhauls are a more effective form of editing. Especially when rewriting, rather than writing a first draft, I find it easy enough to write 50k in a week or two, and I’ve been known to go much faster. Last year, when avoiding reality at the start of lockdown, I wrote 236k in just over six weeks. It’s how I work. It is what it is.

With that in mind, taking part in NaNo is essentially a formality. I know I’ll write 50k. My friends know I’ll hit 50k. The NaNo London region knows I’ll hit 50k and will reminisce fondly about those 2012 write-ins where I churned out words at a speed that even I now find implausible (10k in an hour and a half?!) in my attempt to race our ML Sophie to the 200k mark. And November is rarely a convenient month, often full of academic deadlines and other commitments, so why bother, if it’s not going to achieve anything I wouldn’t be able to do at another time of year?

In previous years, I’d have said I was doing it for the sense of community. There’s something about sitting in a cafe with other writers, taking part in a timed sprint, that makes me feel a sense of connection I don’t get in many other places, since writing is a solitary pursuit most of the time. In 2018, writing one of the more challenging first drafts I’ve tackled in recent years, I crossed the finish line at a write-in held at the Maritime Museum, which was a particularly scenic setting. In 2019, I was able to call by the Cambridge write-ins on my way home from work.

But this year, as last year, all events are online, and while there’s still a community spirit being fostered in the regional Discord servers and write-ins being held over video chat, it’s not quite the same.

So was it nostalgia? Perhaps. Like I said, this is my thirteenth year. I completed my first ever novel during NaNoWriMo 2009, and as such, I guess you could say it was a formative influence on me. I strongly suspect it’s part of the reason I write the way I do (rapidly but repeatedly). The Butterfly Assassin was originally a Camp NaNoWriMo project, back in 2014. Hell, you can go further back than that: Isabel’s original novel, a crime novel featuring an assassin-turned-detective was intended to be my NaNo novel in 2012. I abandoned it at the last minute in favour of something else, then came back to it later in the month once I’d finished that, and wrote a solid chunk of it.

(It was terrible. I am forever grateful that I retrieved Isabel from that book, put her into the ideas box in my head, and kept her there for another year and a half until I came up with a concept that actually worked. Took a few more years after that to get TBA into readable shape, but I’m not sure that first book would have ever got there, not least because even I didn’t actually know who the murderer was in that story.)

And, true, I’m a nostalgic person, with a Timehop streak spanning years, but I don’t think it’s that. Nostalgia’s not a great reason to sit down and write an entire novel every year.

So what is it? Peer pressure? A sense of obligation to my past self? If I were going to stop at any time, I reasoned a couple of years ago, it should have been after 10 years. Now it’s like, well, I can’t stop now. I did NaNo in 2013 when I couldn’t use my hands and had to rely on speech recognition the whole time, so most other excuses seem flimsy at this point. If then, why not now? 2013 was a bad year: I was severely depressed and in a ton of pain and I was desperate for an outlet — which NaNo gave me, for all of three days.

I kept a journal, at the time. Still do, but it was more impressive in 2013, when the two small pages I wrote in my notebook represented the sum total of the amount of time I was able to spend holding a pen each day. Some of them are shaky, barely legible, and some days I couldn’t get through the whole thing without taking breaks because of the pain. But I kept it anyway. So I know how I felt that month, how frustrated I was for letting myself hit the target so quickly because it meant the distraction was gone and I was stuck in my own head again.

Distraction. That’s the key word, I think. That’s why I participated then, when absolutely nobody would have blamed me for skipping a year (although I firmly believe nobody needs an excuse to not participate, because it’s not as if any of this is obligatory). That’s why I sat there in my room with the uncomfortable Dragon NaturallySpeaking headset and struggled to dictate a first draft because my hands weren’t up to the job.

And that’s why I’m here, this month, writing a novel. Even though my thesis is due in less than two weeks, after which I have to pack up my whole flat and move back to the UK. Even though I’m proofreading for The Butterfly Assassin. Even though I should be packing, or making the most of Cork while I’m here (challenging, with a tendon/cartilage injury to the knee).

Because NaNo is a distraction and an excuse, an opportunity to work on something other than whatever I’m supposed to be doing and whatever my day-to-day obligations are. And while I rarely need excuses to procrastinate, I think I welcome anything that makes those non-thesis projects feel like an achievement. Anything that says, “It’s okay, you can be creative for a while and that counts as Getting Things Done.”

I haven’t really written anything new this year. I haven’t had time. I’ve been editing The Butterfly Assassin, and while there have been new scenes, they’ve generally been small contributions to the larger whole. I did rewrite The Wolf and His King, too, but there wasn’t a lot of new material there; it was more of a line-edit for style. It’s my first year under contract, and so the first year where I can’t just run off chasing after a new project because I felt like it.

And, okay, my NaNo novel isn’t new either. It’s the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, first written in 2014, rewritten in 2015, abandoned for five years, and hastily redrafted for continuity last year so that I could show it to my agent. So this is technically a fourth draft, I guess, although last year’s rewrite didn’t make many plot changes. This one does, including some fairly substantial ones, and it frequently feels like I’m making something new even when I have an old draft and a detailed outline to follow.

Besides which, I’ve read TBA so many times that I’m utterly sick of it and every time I spend five minutes too long looking at it, I convince myself it’s terrible and nobody will ever read it. But I still love the characters, and writing the sequel is the best of all worlds: I get to spend more time with those characters, in a book I haven’t edited to death, with that delightful combo of familiarity and shiny newness.

This book is under contract, but it’s not due until May, which means I don’t need NaNo to help me meet deadlines. True, I really want to have a solid draft on paper before the reviews for book 1 start coming in, because I suspect they’re going to feed my inner critic and make it hard for me to focus on writing, but there’s no editor-imposed urgency. Nor do I need NaNo because I would otherwise struggle to get the words on the page, tormented by an inner editor nitpicking every line.

No, what I need from NaNo is the excuse. The justification. The reframing of writing when I should be working on my thesis from “blatant procrastination” to “actually an achievement”.

And, yeah, the sense of community helps. When others celebrate my wordcount, it reminds me that although it’s unremarkable to me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an achievement. It’s easy to lose track of that, I think. Sure, so finishing a draft is only step one on a very, very long road to publication. But a lot of people never get that far, and when you’re sitting safely a fair way along the journey, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come. Maybe what I’m able to do is an achievement. Maybe it is impressive. Maybe, for once, I should stop being so hard on myself.

And though the actual speed of writing isn’t any different for me than it would be in any month — my fingers and brain move at the same speed whether it’s May or November — it’s true that I’m more motivated to write when I know my friends are doing the same, and when there’s a reason to post snippets in the group chat. Especially, I think, when it would be so easy to justify skipping days, because I have so much going on in my life. Of course I could take days off. Days off are healthy. In fact, after rewriting 25k of my thesis in three days during the week before NaNo, I probably should take days off, because my hands are already grumpy and flare-ups are the worst.

But I don’t want to take time off, because I’ve missed writing, and NaNo is finally giving me an excuse to do it.

Even though I’m meant to be doing other things.

Even though I don’t “need” it.

50k was never really the point. NaNoWriMo is about forming habits and daring to try and refusing to let perfectionism get in the way of finishing. NaNoWriMo is about cheering on your friends and being cheered on in turn and finding that tiny window of time each day when you can write (and defending it with your life). NaNoWriMo is about getting the words in your head onto the paper, whether there are 10,000 of them or 50,000 or 200,000.

I don’t think, in the end, it matters if you “win” or not. And I know “it’s all about having fun” is a trite statement, but that is the point, in the end. Why do it, if you’re miserable? Nobody’s making you. For me, NaNoWriMo is about letting myself forget my obligations and to-do list for a couple of hours each day, and writing something, because I want to.

It’s a distraction. It’s an excuse. It’s what I need right now, burning off the nervous energy in my head that haunts my attempts to finish up my thesis or prepare to move. It stops me refreshing my inbox to see if there’s news about the book I’ve got on sub, and it drastically reduces the amount of time I’m spending on Twitter. And it helps me get this book on paper so that I can figure out how to fix it and then, maybe, work on something else.

So that’s why I’m doing this again, for the thirteenth time, with twenty-one first drafts under my belt (very few of which weren’t NaNo or Camp NaNo projects originally). Not because it’s a long hard slog to the finish line, but because it isn’t. I don’t need the challenge, but it turns out, I do need the excuse.

NaNoWriMo stats, at the time of writing:

Wordcount: 50,661
Body count: 7. Isabel would like you to know she only killed 6 of them.
Outline fidelity: about 80%-90%, I’d say, which is honestly fairly miraculous for a pantser like me.
Number of days left until I move countries: 13.
Reasons I could have skipped this year: dozens.
Reasons I didn’t: just one that matters — I didn’t want to.


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The Butterfly Assassin will be released on 26th May, 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it today.

All Murder, No Sex: Why “Upper YA” ≠ “Sexy YA”

It’s still Ace Week, until Sunday, so following on from my last post about asexual representation in The Butterfly Assassin, I figured I would talk some more about sex and YA. More specifically, the clear and important difference between “upper YA” and “sexy YA”: terms with considerable overlap that are nevertheless not synonyms, and shouldn’t be considered as such.

There’s an uncomfortable habit that some people have of referring to books without sex as “clean”. This is particularly common in YA and romance — romance, because it’s a genre where distinguishing which books contain explicit sex is particularly relevant, and YA, because it’s a category where gatekeepers worry about what exactly they’re giving young people to read.

Of course, by categorising some books as “clean”, one automatically categorises others as “dirty”, whether or not that’s the intention, and implying that all explicit sex in books is somehow dangerous or inappropriate is a Whole Thing. It’s also something that’s disproportionately weaponised against marginalised creators. For decades, explicit queer content in books was considered illegally pornographic, and even now, LGBTQ+ books on Amazon get classified as “erotica” and hidden from lists and adverts when they don’t even vaguely fall into that category.

My experiences as a queer YA reader will be forever shaped by the fact that the first book with queer characters that I ever encountered — when I was twelve — had a label on the back saying “Advisory: Adult Content”. A label that wasn’t applied to the sequel, which contained substantial amounts of drug use. Only to the book with the gay characters. And I’ll always be shaped by the fact that when I was eighteen, I owned a grand total of three books containing queer characters. I can only recall two of the books, but in both of those they’re cis male secondary characters.

In other words, I never saw myself in books growing up. If I stumbled on queer characters in library books it felt like a strange kind of secret I was sharing with the author. Section 28 was repealed while I was still in primary school, but my county kept a version of it until I was halfway through secondary school, and in 2014, when I finished school, 29% of teachers still didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues in schools.

This was a world of silence. Of not talking about it. Of “think of the children”. Of being treated like someone who was only allowed to exist after the watershed.

As an adult, it’s strange to think how recent this was, though sometimes, being trans, it can feel like little progress has been made. I remember when I first started getting queer books to review, I felt like I had to give all of them extra stars just because they bothered to include queer characters, which I’d seen so rarely. Now, there are enough of them that I don’t have to read any books featuring only straight people, if I choose not to. Now, there are enough that I’m allowed to dislike some of them.

I try not to take that for granted. I try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that twenty years ago, most of the YA books I read now would have been illegal to display in school libraries.

It isn’t a world we should go back to.


There are constant conversations these days about sex in YA books, and the nature of upper YA, and where the line is between YA and Adult and whether it’s become too blurred, and whether YA is really written for teenagers anymore. Discourse is cyclical; the same discussions happen every few months, nothing changes, and everybody sinks into an ever-deepening pit of despair.

My take? The vast majority of YA books are written for teens. A few aren’t, but end up marketed that way because of the author’s prior readership or because publishers think they’ll do better there. Some of those that fall into this latter category happen to be really popular with older/adult YA readers, who have the purchasing power that makes publishers care about them, and therefore those books dominate the conversation because that’s what happens when money gets involved. Sometimes, I think both readers and authors would be happier if they made the jump to certain adult genres instead of squashing their books into the YA category by default. Other times, I think people are patronising teenagers and thinking them incapable of making up their own minds about anything. A lot of the time I’m feeling both of these things simultaneously.

One thing I find reductive about the conversation is how it always comes down to sex.

I think I have strong feelings about this for two reasons. One, I’m somebody who writes upper YA and adult fiction and often struggles to determine on which side of the line a book should fall. Two, I was a kid who read ‘above’ my age category from a fairly young age but who hated romance in books.

I was a teenager during the paranormal romance boom. Shaped by the Twilight era so much that I wrote one of my GCSE coursework essays about the impact Twilight had had on teen fiction as a whole. You know what I complained about in that essay? That it flooded the market with copycats and love triangles so that those of who didn’t like them had to go hang out in the adult section to find literally anything else.

I was probably being hyperbolic. I’m sure there were plenty of other YA books in the late 00s and early 10s that weren’t fixated on heterosexual white girls and their awkward supernatural love triangles. I probably read a lot of them, and loved a lot of them. But it felt, at times, like every book I read was trying to give me the same story, and it was a story that had romance at the centre, where kissing was a huge, life-changing big deal that everybody was desperate to experience.

And I… wasn’t interested.

Not only was I not interested, but throughout most of my teens I found sex not only uninteresting but actively horrifying and repellent to think about. I looked away during sex scenes in films. I skimmed them in books. I’d retreated to the adult SFF section to get away from ubiquitous YA love triangles, but I’d found the sexual violence of A Song of Ice and Fire (also gaining popularity at the time) to be a pretty poor alternative.

I wanted difficult books. Angsty books. Books with tough choices and sad endings where not everything turned out all right. I didn’t want the kind of kidlit where everybody’s safely home for tea at the end; I wanted books that would make me cry. But the older I got and the further along the YA category I got, the more the world only seemed to want to give me books about sex.


My debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is an upper YA book. It’s a book where I find myself mentally justifying its classification as YA because I don’t feel secure in it. It’s a book where my editor has periodically said, “I’m not sure if we should put that in a YA book,” or, “Should we maybe avoid this detail?” (And most of the time I’ve justified keeping whatever the detail was on the basis that I have 100% seen worse in popular MG and YA books.) It is a book I will not be letting my mum read.

It is also a sexless book. A book with no romance. A book where romance doesn’t even enter into the protagonist’s mind, and she shows absolutely no interest in sex.

It is not a ‘clean’ book.

It’s not a clean book because the protagonist kills somebody in the first chapter. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the blurb.) It’s not a clean book because there’s more than enough swearing to ensure my parents will be vaguely disappointed in me no matter how well it sells. (Sorry.) It’s not a clean book because there’s violence and trauma and the messiness of trying to take control of your life when literally everybody around you thinks they know better than you how you should be living it.

But hey, there’s no sex.

That was a conscious choice, for the record. When I planned this book, way back in 2014, that was one of the first things I knew about it: that it was going to be all murder, no sex. I was eighteen and sick of sexy assassins, sick of ’emotionless’ characters being humanised by their libido, sick of romantic or sexual attraction being positioned as a redeeming feature.

I was sick of being told, implicitly, with every book that I read, that my lack of interest either made me a sociopath or a child.

It was a pattern I saw again and again. A remorseless, dark character is portrayed as emotionless and their capacity for redemption is in doubt, right up until the moment they fall in love and suddenly reveal themselves to have a heart. It didn’t seem like these protagonists were allowed to be softened by friendship. Nor did it seem that dystopian protagonists were ever allowed to motivated to save the world by platonic bonds of affection.

Because if they were, that wouldn’t be YA. That would be MG.

I wanted upper YA. I wanted books that were dark and morally complicated and that asked hard questions and that my parents would probably disapprove of. I wanted books that didn’t pull their punches (but authors seemed intent on not letting their characters actually die, which infuriated me). But it felt like I was only allowed those books with a solid helping of romance. And the ‘older’ the books got, the sexier they got.


It’s not that sex doesn’t belong in books. During the course of the pandemic, I’ve developed a taste for queer historical romance novels and I’ve read some of them three times or more. Some of them have explicit sex, and if it’s well-written, that can be a plus. Have I read a few that squicked me out? Yeah, because bad sex scenes are The Worst. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem. It’s an important reminder that I want from books as a 25-year-old is very different from what I wanted from books as a 16-year-old — something I try to bear in mind when I write YA. Some people’s tastes don’t change so dramatically, going from being utterly repulsed by sex to having a collection of favourite romance novels, but it’s still important to remember that teens and adults often want pretty different things from books.

But that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t belong in YA, either. Even if it wasn’t to my taste, a lot of teenagers are interested in sex. A lot of teenagers are having it, too, though possibly not as many as the media would have you believe. (Most of my friendship group wasn’t. Side effect of being late-blooming queers: nobody was getting laid.) If they don’t find it in the books aimed at their age group, they’ll look for it elsewhere. In fanfic. In romance novels. In whatever they take off their parents’ shelves.

(I have friends who read wildly inappropriate books from a very young age by virtue of raiding their parents’ bookshelves. The fact that I wasn’t one of them was probably less to do with my lack of interest and more to do with the fact that my parents’ shelves contained things like Kafka in the original German, and three copies of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The “Advisory: Adult Content” YA novel I read at twelve was sneaked from my sister’s shelf instead.)

Sex has been in YA books for as long as YA has existed as a category. It’s not a new trend, nor is it at odds with themes and ideas that many teenagers are looking for. And it’s not responsible for the ways that the category is pushing older and older and marketing more to adults than to teenagers. That, as far as I can tell, is about money. It’s about who buys hardbacks and subscription boxes and collects special editions versus who is waiting six months for the library to get a copy of the book. Which one do the publishers care more about? And which one of those is the teen?

But listening to the conversations about upper YA, you’d think that sex was the only thing that defined that category, just like manufactured love triangles and creepy, controlling love interests seemed to define the bestsellers in the genre when I was a teenager. And it’s not. There are — and should be — other factors at work. There are ‘sexless’ books that skew older than any of the contemporaries exploring a character’s first time; books that centre friendship aren’t automatically closer to MG than to adult.

I realise that for a lot of people, romantic and sexual firsts are a major part of the process of growing up. But often — and maybe I’d even say increasingly — that doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s teens. A lot of my friends didn’t have their first kiss until their 20s. The YA books we grew up with taught us that that was weird and unusual. It’s not. Especially not for queer people of our generation, who didn’t necessarily have the freedom to explore our sexualities as teenagers.

By reducing the YA category to the types of relationships depicted, we do it a disservice, and we do teenagers a disservice. By making conversations about appropriate age ranges focus on how much sex there is or isn’t in a book, we exclude people from the discussion. There are teens who are interested in sex, yes. And I recognise that “teens want this” is an important weapon against gatekeepers who would treat seventeen-year-olds like seven-year-olds if not for the constant pushback of authors and creators.

But. But. Conversations about sex in YA and conversations about there not being enough books for fourteen-year-olds are not the same conversation. There are fourteen-year-olds who want romance-focused books with a certain amount of steaminess. And there are eighteen-year-olds who want dark, messed-up books with no sex whatsoever.

And these books exist. There’s upper YA that pushes the boundaries of what it means for a book to be YA and they don’t do it by including graphic sex scenes. But when we make the conversation “who is YA really for” to be about how much sex is in a book, we miss the point, because those are two separate things.


I know that people say that authors need to be writing for real teens, who are reading now. Not for their own past self, who lived in a different world.

But they also say you should write the books you want to read, if you can’t find them on the shelf.

When I was seventeen, I wanted a book that was all murder, no sex. I wanted a book that was aimed at my age group, that didn’t pull punches or patronise me, and I didn’t want the cost of maturity to be romance. Because even then I was sick of an amatonormative world that treated friendship as something childish and romance as the gateway to adulthood.

And I’m willing to bet there are still some teens out there who want that too.

The Butterfly Assassin is upper YA. It contains no sex. That doesn’t make it any less upper YA and it certainly doesn’t make it any less likely to get complaints from parents and school librarians — though I’m convinced it’ll be the swearing that bothers them more than the corpses.

I started out by talking about the silence of the world I grew up in, one that only gave me heterosexual options and where anything else was shocking and rare and transgressive, because it’s been 13 years and I’m still angry that a book with a gay character got stamped with ADVISORY: ADULT CONTENT but a book with repeated drug use didn’t. Because being queer was considered more mature, more ‘inappropriate’. Because simply by virtue of containing a character who was explicitly gay, the book’s target audience was considered older.

This is why I’m wary of conversations that position sex as the defining feature of upper YA. This is why I’m wary when conversations about YA not being written for teens start and end with the amount of sex that’s in a book. It is always weaponised against marginalised groups first.

But it’s also why it bothers me that books without sex are automatically considered suitable for younger readers than those that contain it. For years, graphic violence was considered more suitable for kids that consensual queerness. Why are we more okay with letting a thirteen-year-old read about murder than letting them read about sex?

There are so many levels to this problem, and it helps nobody if we treat sex as the definitive factor in a book’s target audience. It is only one factor, one that’s tied up in cultural ideas about maturity and what it means to grow up, and one that’s dominated the conversation for way too long.

YA is about so much more than romantic and sexual relationships. But it’s easy to forget that, when that seems to be all anyone ever talks about. Maybe it’s time we moved on.


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