Tag: The Butterfly Assassin

Things Nobody Tells You About Getting A Book Deal

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

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

Being able to keep a secret is a crucial skill

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

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

You can join the debut groups before you’ve announced

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

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

Keeping it a secret doesn’t mean not telling anybody

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

Publishing is stressful and that stress can manifest strangely

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

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

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

Sometimes that stress comes with guilt

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

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

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

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

It’s always all or nothing

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

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

You get way less time than you think

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

Your editing process may totally change

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re allowed to say “no”

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing The Butterfly Assassin

I’ve been waiting to share this news with you for a long time. Since January. Since 2014. Since the day I decided I was going to be a writer. And now, at long last, I can:

My debut YA novel, The Butterfly Assassin, will be published by Simon and Schuster Children’s Books in May 2022.

Here’s the announcement from Book Brunch:

Full alt-text/transcription to come. Announcement from Book Brunch.

This has been a long journey. The Butterfly Assassin, formerly known as Butterfly of Night, was my fifteenth novel, and the path it took from first draft to agented book was circuitous. We sold the book in January of this year, and I’ve been sitting on the news ever since, which has been torturous — I’m terrible at keeping secrets, which is why I was always useless at being closeted. Even small things, like the fact that we’d changed the title, meant I couldn’t really blog about the editing process at all without giving something away.

But now I can tell you. I can scream it from the rooftops. MY BOOK IS GOING TO BE PUBLISHED. You’re going to be able to read it! (Well, those of you in the UK will. Hoping we’ll sell the foreign rights as well; updates to come.)

We also sold the sequel, which is fabulous. I’ve always conceived of this book as the first in a trilogy: while it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, the story is very much not over, either. Knowing we’ll get the second book is a huge relief. Here’s hoping we get book three, too; the end of book two’s kind of a bummer without it! I know they say you shouldn’t write sequels before you’ve sold the first book, but, well, that’s never advice I’ve followed, lol.

It has been strange and surreal to achieve something I’ve worked towards for so many years and not be able to talk about it, and the secrecy has contributed to the vague sense that none of it was real and it would all be taken away from me at any moment. The fact that so far it does seem to be actually happening should be reassuring, but I guess that’s anxiety for you… I don’t think it’ll feel real until I hold it in my hands.

Some thanks are due to:

  • Rory Power, who picked me as her mentee for Author Mentor Match and is the reason this book was good enough to get this far. None of this would have happened if she hadn’t supported me through the process of burning it down and starting over. And of course to Alexa Donne, for setting up AMM in the first place.
  • Jessica Hare, my agent, who saw my pitch on #DVPit, who loved and believed in this book, and who is very tolerant of my refusal to stick to any genre or category for more than five minutes. And to Beth Phelan, for founding #DVPit and enabling us to find each other.
  • Amina Youssef, my editor, who bought the book! Without her, it wouldn’t be being published. She’s been very tolerant of my extreme pickiness about punctuation… it turns out I have extremely strong opinions about commas.
  • The AMM Round 6 group chat, Write Club, for their support and gentle peer pressure over the last couple of years, who’ve put up with me yelling for the past eight months while I waited to announce.
  • The Muddle Ages, my medievalist Discord server, ditto.
  • All of this book’s many beta readers (there have been so many over the years), everyone who helped me with the science, and everyone who ever asked me hard questions about the worldbuilding so that I actually had to answer them. I promise you’re all named in the acknowledgements; I’m just trying to keep this post to a reasonable length.

And I’m sure many others! Like I said: it’ll all be in the acknowledgements…

Some FAQs:

What’s the book about?

A traumatised teenage assassin trying and failing to live an ordinary life away from the parents who trained and abused her. And by ‘failing’ I mean she kills somebody in chapter one.

Who’s the target audience?

It’s an upper YA book, so it’s primarily aimed at older teens. It’s probably not suitable for younger teens, though as ever, that kind of thing’s up to the reader’s discretion. As my use of the words ‘traumatised’ and ‘abused’ should suggest, there’s some dark content, though I hope I’ve handled it sensitively and not gratuitously. There’s also a lot of murder. I mean, it’s a book about assassins, so one would expect murder. There’s no sexual content of any sort, but there’s more than enough swearing to disappoint my parents.

Will there be content warnings?

Yes, I’ll add detailed content warnings to my website (here) closer to publication date. I don’t want any readers to be caught out.

Is it fantasy?

No. It’s “speculative” in the sense that it’s set in a fictional city, which exists because the book’s version of our world made some slightly different choices during WW1. That means we have about a century of alternate history going on. It’s set in the near future; most of the tech is realistic if not actually real; and there’s no magic or supernatural happenings.

Is it queer?

Yes. And no. Yes: Isabel is asexual, and several of the other characters are queer. No: these labels are rarely used on-page; Isabel in particular lacks the vocabulary to describe herself in these terms. Some are confirmed by reference to past relationships, and others may become clear in book two. There are no prominent romantic relationships in the book at all, so queerness isn’t a focus of this story, but it’s a lens through which these characters see the world. It’s also something of a queer-norm setup in that homophobia isn’t really a Thing in this setting.

No romance at all?

No. There is, however, a super close ride-or-die friendship, because I believe that platonic relationships can be just as intense and meaningful as romantic ones. Like I said, Isabel’s asexual. I don’t think she’s aromantic, but she hasn’t figured that out yet. It was important to me that her most important relationship here would be a friendship.

Is it coming out in [insert country here]?

At the moment, publication is planned for the UK. We’re going out with foreign rights shortly, though, so hopefully it’ll find a home internationally! I’ll keep you updated, and all the links etc will be on the ‘Books’ page. I think you can buy UK-published books from Book Depository and similar even if they’re not published in your country, so it should be possible to obtain it from further afield.

Will it be paperback or hardback?

Paperback, as far as I’m aware. Most UK YA comes out in paperback only, until you’re a bestseller. I’m cool with this; I mostly buy paperbacks myself, and I want my book to be affordable for as many people as possible, so this seems like a step towards that! (There’ll also be an e-book and I’m hoping for an audiobook as well? I’ll keep you posted.)

How can I pre-order? Should I pre-order?

Yes, please pre-order! It’s great for authors, especially debuts, since it signals to publishers and bookshops that there’s interest. You can find all the links on the Books page, and also a link to Goodreads, if you’d like to add it to your to-read shelf!

How long is it?

Substantially longer than my contract said it was going to be. Close to 95k last time we looked. I have… stopped looking. I won’t know the exact page count until we get closer to it being a real, physical book (!!).

How can I get a proof copy/ARC?

I honestly have no idea at this stage. Drop a note in the comments here if you’re a reviewer or bookstagrammer or booktoker or whatever the term is and you’re interested in getting your hands on a review copy of TBA, and I’ll come back to you when I know more. That way I’ll be able to keep track; if you tell me on Twitter or Instagram, your message will probably get buried, so the blog’s a better bet!

Tell us one thing about the book we can’t guess from the blurb above.

Isabel’s first language is Esperanto, and the language plays a small but significant role throughout the book :)

If I haven’t answered your question, please drop it in the comment section below — I am very happy to answer! I’m trying to anticipate what people will ask, but I’ve never done this before, so I’m just guessing, really.

What is YA, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Scifi books:

MG: My classmate is an alien!

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

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

Military SF: KILL ALL ALIENS

Dark SF: GET KILLED BY ALL ALIENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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On Killing Darlings

Most writers have been given this advice at some time — if not by a creative writing teacher, then they’ve read it in a book or online. “Kill your darlings”. It’s ubiquitous, maybe because it’s snappy and easy to remember.

But less easy, it seems, to interpret. Some seem to think it means, “Don’t be afraid to hurt your characters.” This would never have occurred to me as a meaning, since I’ve been being horrible to my characters since approximately the age of eight, but I can see where they’re coming from. Some authors do seem to struggle with actually making their characters suffer, or killing anybody off — I’m just not one of them 😈 Others think it means, “Cut out anything even slightly self-indulgent, because what do you mean you’re enjoying your book?” These people usually think it’s bad advice, and they’re probably right.

The way “Kill your darlings” was explained to me, though I can’t remember by whom, is more along the lines of, “Don’t hold onto a scene/line/character once it’s no longer useful, just because you like it.” If a scene isn’t working and the only reason it’s still in the book is because you’re attached to it… that’s a darling, and it needs to be killed.

I’m a pretty ruthless editor of my own work, possibly because my method of editing is to start a new document and write the whole book again from the beginning. This horrifies some people, and it’s a ridiculously labour-intensive way of doing things, but it means I’m not afraid to yeet material. After all, it’s always still there in the previous version, and why would I want to type it out again unless I needed to?

A couple of years ago, when I was being mentored by Rory Power to revise my YA thriller with Author Mentor Match, I took an even more drastic approach. I basically burned the whole thing down and started again, reworking my plot, combining characters, and generally ending up with a new book… albeit one that had important elements in common with the previous one.

One thing I’ve found remarkable about that book is how, even after 7 years and countless reworkings, it still feels like the same book that I wrote in 2014. The vibes are still there, even if basically no scenes have survived. I’ve killed a lot of darlings — scenes that were in the book for 5+ years, lines I loved, jokes that made me snigger — because I made other changes that meant those moments were no longer working.

And yet.

I’ve recently been editing this book again, because it never ends, and while this rewrite hasn’t encompassed such huge changes, I still made a number of alterations that had a knock-on impact on other scenes. It was … a little bit like when you move a picture slightly in MS Word and it destroys the formatting for your entire document. You know the feeling? I moved one tiny thing and suddenly it all went wrong. Oops.

Screenshot of a Facebook message. Sender's name appears to be "perpetually concerned". Message reads "where is the plot equivalent of going 'image > wrap > tight'" and has received a thumbs up and a laugh reaction.

Most of these, I’ve managed to straighten out. There are a couple of problem chapters that I need to go back to, one of which is proving particularly intransigent. Now, I love that chapter. I’ve always loved the chapter — it survived from a much earlier draft, even though its current context is very different, and there are some lines in it that date back years. But it wasn’t working, and I found myself thinking, “Is my love of this chapter getting in the way?”

Maybe, I thought, this was a darling that needed to be cut. Could I delete it? Would that solve anything? Was I holding onto something that had long since ceased to fulfill its intended to function, and which needed to be retired?

After three seconds of thought it became apparent that it would not, in fact, solve anything. Yes, I loved the scene, but independent of my feelings about the prose, it was providing pivotal moments for at least two characters, and underpinning a major plot point. Taking it out would cause a collapse in the middle of the book. The scene still served a purpose, so deleting it wasn’t the solution.

Nope, that one I was actually going to have to fix the old-fashioned way. By rewriting it again. (That’s tomorrow’s job.)

A screencap of a green chat bubble reading:
"me: how much do i REALLY need this scene
like three plot points: bitch don't even think about it"
The bubble is timestamped Mon 2:54 pm, and has been laugh-reacted once.
My writing friends enjoy laughing at my pain.

But there was one moment towards the end where a scene just wasn’t working. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make the new events join up with what I wanted to have happen immediately afterwards. There was this line, you see, the final sentence of the chapter, and I loved it. It was a great end to the chapter. Intensely emotional. Fabulous imagery. Really hammered home the fact that this is a low point for the protagonist. And yet…

I must have spent hours trying to figure out how to fix the scene. I tried to write it on paper. I wrote it, deleted it, abandoned it entirely and went to Lidl, hoping the walk would shake it loose. I messaged two of my beta readers to bounce ideas. Dove into research in the hope that figuring out logistics would shake the answers loose instead.

And then I came back to it and realised the problem wasn’t the scene. It was that line.

I couldn’t fix the scene and keep the line in. I mean, I could write a version of the chapter that still had that line, but it wouldn’t work; it would wrench the mood back in a different direction, and complicate the transition to the next chapter. Was it a great, poetic line full of angst that I was incredibly proud of? Yes. Was it working where it was? Absolutely not.

And when I looked at it again, knowing this, I realised… it actually hadn’t been working before, either. It hadn’t been as out-of-place as it was now, which is why it had been allowed to stay, but it introduced a significant inconsistency in the character’s mood throughout the scene — she went from angry and murderous one second, to despairing and helpless the next, with no moment of transition. If I hadn’t loved it so much, I probably would have noticed that sooner, and resolved that issue, but my lack of objectivity was getting in the way.

So I killed my darling. I cut the line. I finished the scene, I rewrote the opening of the next chapter to reflect the changes, and it solved the problem. It’s a stronger scene, the emotional arc is more consistent, and while something is lost, it’s something I’m not sure had ever really belonged there in the first place. The scene still isn’t perfect, and I definitely want to go over it again to make sure we still get the full emotional effect, but it’s a lot better than it would have been had I tried to shoehorn in that sentence I loved.

Because sometimes, it turns out, the old clichés of writing advice are right. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings.

This Year In Writing

For many people, 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive year, which is entirely understandable. It’s hard to focus on anything when the world’s falling apart around you, and for those with kids suddenly at home 24/7… well, I’m not surprised to see a lot of writers tweeting about how many deadlines they’ve missed this year, and how difficult it’s been to get words on paper.

For me, it was a little different, and that’s not because I was having a great year (I wasn’t) — although I recognise that being furloughed with pay for several months and having no caring responsibilities did put me in a comparatively privileged position. For a few months there I had a taster of what it would be like to be a full-time writer, being paid to stay at home and work on books, and the result was that I wrote 236k in six weeks. But that wasn’t because I was lacking in anxiety — if anything, it’s because I was too anxious to stop. As long as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t checking the news, wasn’t seeing the Covid figures tick higher and higher, and it became my best method of preventing myself from endlessly doomscrolling on Twitter. So I just… wrote obsessively.

My seemingly productive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily better ways of dealing with anything — avoidance can only take you so far, and I had a couple of months of doing nothing except lying in bed being a depression slug. (Because it turns out, after you’ve attended the livestreamed funeral of somebody less than a year older than you, it becomes a lot harder to pretend reality doesn’t exist anymore.) But they do look, from the outside, like I’m managing okay. I think that’s why I’ve been finding myself a little reluctant to talk about what I’ve achieved this year, in case it makes others think I’ve been unaffected by the chaos in the world, or gives off the impression that I’m looking down on those for whom quarantine wasn’t a productive experience.

Because I’m not. I’m well aware that everyone copes in their own way, and barring my summer of lying in bed doing nothing except feeling kinda sad and exhausted, this happened to be how I dealt with things. It worked for me, it wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else, it is what it is.

So, I figured as a kind of recap, I’d tell you what I’ve been working on this year.

April-May 2020: Bard, draft 3

Bard is a YA sci-fi Arthurian retelling that I first wrote in 2016 and rewrote in 2018, set on a former prison colony in space. This third draft was a last-ditch attempt to see if it was salvageable, but after some thought, I’ve concluded that it probably isn’t. It clocked in at 134k and by the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. Don’t get me wrong — this book has potential. It has some characters that I love and some ideas that mean a lot to me, and I particularly enjoyed how strongly the pacifist vibes came through in this draft. But it would need a complete plot overhaul to be a functional book, it requires a level of worldbuilding I don’t think I’m capable of (I do not science), and frankly… I’m not sure I’m invested in it enough to put that work in. There are a lot of YA Arthurian retellings out there. I’m not sure the world needs mine enough to go to the effort of dismantling it and make it something functional. But I might raid parts of it for another book one day.

It’s about friendship and peace and very gentle revolutions and I wish I loved the book itself as much as I love the ideas in it.

May 2020: Moth 2, draft 3

At the start of May, I received an offer of representation for the first book in the Moth Trilogy, Butterfly of Night. During the two weeks that followed, as I attempted to keep my anxiety at bay while I waited for other agents to respond and so on, I wrote a very hasty redraft of its sequel, which I originally wrote in 2014 and haven’t touched since early 2015. It’s not that I thought I would need this any time soon — more that I wanted something to work on that would get my brain back in the right mindset to potentially tackle revisions of BoN. Mostly, this rewrite was intended to bring this sequel in line with book one in terms of continuity and worldbuilding, since major edits to the first book in the last five years meant that the existing draft made no sense. It still needs a bunch of work on a plot level, especially since some of those changes undermined the character motivations and weakened the existing arc, but it’s a vaguely book-shaped thing, and if nothing else, it was a good distraction.

Plus I enjoy this book solely for the fact that we have a deadly assassin working as a library assistant.

June 2020: concerto for two idiots, draft 1 [incomplete]

This is not this book’s actual title, but since it doesn’t have one, I’m referring to it by the joke title I gave its playlist. This book was my first attempt at a proper YA contemporary — a retelling of the story of Lancelot and Galehaut, set in a secondary school orchestra. While I loved writing these gay disasters and it was delightful to dip back into the musical world I inhabited as a teen, this book suffered from poor timing — as my depression got worse throughout June and into July, I found I wasn’t capable of writing what would otherwise have been the happiest book I’ve written so far, and eventually I stopped being able to write at all and put the book indefinitely on hold. I hope I can come back to it at some point, because writing contemporary was a new direction for me and I wanted to see where it could go, but I haven’t been in the right headspace for it. I think it also suffered from lack of planning — I jumped into it without really thinking it through, having already been writing nonstop for a couple of months. So, for now it’s 58k of a messy first draft.

By ‘messy’ I mean multiple characters are known only by initials and there’s a band called “Terrible Band Name”, but I had a lot of fun with it while it lasted.

September 2020: Butterfly of Night, draft 4096

Okay, it’s probably not draft 4096, it’s more like draft 8 (and 8×8 is 64 and 64×64 is 4096, so…). But after six years of working on this book, it feels like it! I revised Butterfly of Night during my 2-week quarantine after moving to Ireland, taking into account some feedback we’d received from editors as well as developing some ideas that would lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy. As I’ve said before, this book can stand alone and I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s the case, but it’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the more I know about the later books, the more I can solidify the worldbuilding in book one to make sure the pieces are in place. These revisions involved changing the ending in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote the first draft in 2014, so that was wild, but now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I let the old ending stand for so long. I did a subsequent round of line edits during October to smooth out some inconsistencies and tighten the prose, but the bulk of the writing happened in September.

Me attempting to plan my revisions: “Why does a book need a plot? Is it not enough for it to be about trauma recovery and friendship? And murder.”

November 2020: To A Candle Flame (Moth 3), draft 1

For NaNoWriMo this year, I wrote a draft of the final book in the Moth Trilogy. It’s a very self-indulgent project intended only for myself — it relies on the latest version of BoN, which only one person has read, and on a non-existent version of the second book, which I have yet to write and so exists only in my head. Which means I can’t ask anybody to read it through. Really, I just wanted to know how it ended, for the sake of my own curiosity. Having this on paper means I have a much clearer sense of the edits I need to do to make book 2 functional, though, and it was nice to write a first draft in this world for the first time since 2014. I did not, however, succeed in following through on this particular note from my planning, mostly because I forgot it existed:

So that’s a note for the next draft. Give Isabel a tiny cat.

(Also, I feel like the juxtaposition of moods in this screenshot really says a lot about how I plan books. It’s just a jumble of every thought and feeling I’ve had about the novel, and I talk to myself on paper until I figure out what I’m trying to say.)

November-December 2020: The Wolf and His King, draft 2

At the very end of November and going into December, I spontaneously decided to rewrite last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a retelling of Bisclavret. This was in some ways a fairly superficial edit: I focused on prose, historical detail, and character development, and didn’t dig deep into plot or pacing. I’ve had some positive feedback from my beta readers and a couple of suggestions for improvements, and probably at some point there’ll be a third draft that involves pulling the book apart a bit more thoroughly, but mostly, I’m solidly proud of this one and it means a lot to me as a book because it feels very personal. It’s also a wildly different kind of book to the Moth Trilogy — it’s an adult literary novel with a strong romance element, so a sharp contrast to my YA thrillers with zero romance, but I like to keep things varied. I’m hoping 2021 will see this book taking a few steps further along the journey to publication, but we’ll have to see.

Beta reader feedback varied in style but I particularly enjoyed Charley’s approach of liveblogging her feelings at me.

Poetry

I’ve also started writing poetry again. I used to write poems constantly and obsessively, but I’ve lost the knack of it these last few years. Most years I manage a small handful, separated by months, but I’ve written around 20 so far in 2020 and the majority of them since the end of October. I’ve started trying to write poems deliberately, following prompts, rather than just when I feel inspired, and I’ve entered a few into competitions, mainly to give me a reason to finish them. It’s been nice, re-learning how to write poems, and I’m enjoying playing around with language. I realised I was using a lot of the same imagery in my novels and I thought maybe if I practised with poems, I would learn to vary those descriptions a bit more.

There’s still some time left in 2020, but I’ve promised to take a break from creative writing for a while. In 2020 I wrote 564,336 words of fiction across those two projects, which doesn’t account for those scenes I wrote two or three times, all the planning and worldbuilding notes I wrote both on paper and in Word docs, or anything academic. (I also wrote the openings for various other projects, which I do quite often, but again, I don’t count those unless they develop into something.) I think I would be right in saying I haven’t done that since my wrist injury in 2013, and what’s even more remarkable is that almost all of those words were typed (not dictated) — a reminder that although during pain flare-ups it doesn’t feel like it, I have recovered a huge amount since then.

Shortest complete novel: 71k. Longest: 133k.

For the rest of the year, barring a couple of oneshots I told myself I’d write as Christmas gifts for friends, the only things I’ll be writing will be my assignments. But it’s nice to close out 2020 knowing that despite this terrible year, I made words. A somewhat alarming number of words. (If I broke down the exact number of days spent writing and tried to work out an average, I suspect it would be the kind of number that makes physiotherapists give me the “not mad, just disappointed” look.) And those words helped me to get through this.

And whether or not you made any words at all this year, I’m glad you, too, got through this, and I’d love to hear more about anything creative that might have come out of this for you.

Writing For Myself

Blogging about NaNoWriMo as though the US election isn’t looming over all of us — yes, even those of us who aren’t American — feels strange. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that there’s absolutely no point waiting for things to be normal again. Because something is always happening, and that something is usually terrible.

(Also, I feel like if we press pause on everything not-terrible while something potentially-terrible is happening, that means everything on the internet is about the potentially-terrible things, and nobody gets a break or a chance to think about anything else. Which doesn’t seem to benefit anybody. I can’t speak for others, but a lot of the time these days I very much want to read about things that don’t matter at all.)

So let’s talk about National Novel Writing Month instead.

My participation in NaNoWriMo every year is beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. This is my twelfth year, and honestly, if I were going to take a break it should’ve been after the tenth, because at least that was a nice round number, but last year‘s queer werewolf novel crept up on me. Now I feel like I’d be betraying something if I skipped a year, despite the fact that literally nobody cares who isn’t me.

Actually, I did consider not participating this year. I mean, I don’t need NaNo to help me get the words on the page — writing fifty thousand words in a month is, if anything, slightly slower than my normal writing speed for first drafts — and I’ve got an MA demanding my attention, a newly rediscovered interest in blogging to feed, and videos to make. But… well. Here we are. I guess I can’t resist.

It’s a strange year for NaNo, because there are no in-person events, though most regions have terrifyingly active Discord servers (if the Ireland regions are anything to go by), so the community continues to thrive. On the plus side, not having any in-person events means less pressure to explain what my book is about, which is good, because describing this book is essentially a huge spoiler for the ones that went before it.

You see, this year my project’s an unusually self-indulgent one. Not that I’m not always first and foremost writing the books I want to read, but I’m usually aiming them at an audience too. This one, though, this one’s for me, because I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else will ever read it. It’s a sequel, you see. Well, actually, the third book in a trilogy.

The first book is Butterfly of Night, which is, with any luck, due to go on sub soon (‘on submission’ — being sent to editors at publishing houses in the hope that they will love it a lot, give me vast amounts of money, and publish it with great fanfare. Or indeed, give me small amounts of money and publish it at all). Most people don’t recommend writing sequels when the first book hasn’t sold, in case it doesn’t sell and you end up shelving multiple books rather than just one, but… that’s not advice I’ve ever listened to.

The thing about Butterfly of Night is that I never conceived of it as a standalone, as I explained in the post linked above. It works well enough as one (I worked hard to make sure of that), but it’s always been a trilogy in my head. Still, while I drafted the first two books back-to-back in the summer of 2014, book three (working title To A Candle Flame) has always… eluded me.

I’m not sure why it’s always proved so difficult to write. I’ve started it multiple times. At one point I had a bunch of disconnected scenes in Scrivener in the hope that eventually I’d figure out how they joined up. I started writing it again earlier this year, but gave up after 14,000 words because I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.

Is it because it’s the last book? Because I’m trying to follow through on promises I made to myself and brings things to a pleasing conclusion? Maybe it’s just that emotionally, it’s a challenging book: I put my protagonist Isabel through a lot in the first two, and book three is when she really deals with the psychological fall-out of that.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s hard to write the third book in a trilogy when the first book hasn’t sold, the second book needs major edits to make it work, and you don’t know whether it will see the light of day.

So this year, what NaNoWriMo means to me is the permission to write something that might not ever see the light of day. That could end up being just for me. A scruffy first draft written not for publication but because I want to see for myself how this story ends. I want to follow my character through to the end of the line. I want to know what happens. She’s lived in my head for six years: I want to complete this obligation I feel to her story.

Like I said, self-indulgent. But I’m a fast writer, so if it gets shelved, it’s okay. At least I got that closure for myself; I haven’t poured years of my life into polishing the prose of a forgotten Word document. Just a rough draft in search of some answers.

And yes, writing an entire novel for the sake of figuring out how things end — especially when I’ve arguably already done that in the outline — is no small amount of work. But my brain needs something creative to distract me, especially when reality is so anxiety-inducing; a way of letting off steam.

Self-indulgent sadly doesn’t mean easy, and now that I’ve already left behind those early chapters that were reworkings of previous attempts and struck out into the brave new world of actually drafting, I immediately hate everything I’ve written. But at least this time I did make an attempt at plotting the book, refining my ideas, so maybe this time it won’t fizzle out so quickly for want of direction.

Self-indulgent also doesn’t mean happy — but unlike those early attempts at the book from 2015 and 2016, this book is no longer as profoundly depressing as it used to be. It starts out sad (it’s very much a story about grief and recovery), but the aim is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Unlike my younger self, who couldn’t see a way out for this character that felt real, I’ve come to realise that happy endings — or at least, optimistic ones — aren’t childish, but brave. It’s easy to write bleak stories, and I’ve sure done it a lot, but trying to find space in those narratives for hope is far more satisfying, in the long run.

This is a book that hopes to reconcile the violence of the earlier books with my own pacifism. It’s a book about culpability and guilt and choices and the idea of forgiveness as a radical act. It’s asking the same question as several other things I’ve written: is there any such thing as beyond redemption?

And it’s about grief. It is very much about grief.

I think that’s why I couldn’t write it earlier this year. Since last week had me sitting on my sofa sobbing uncontrollably with zero warning at the memory of loss, I was worried when November 1st ticked around that I wouldn’t be able to write it now, either. But… I don’t know. So far I’ve been able to. Who knows, maybe it’ll help. At least I can always tell myself that no matter how bad I am at dealing with my feelings, I can’t be as bad as Isabel.

That bar is low, though.

So that’s what I’m writing this year. Because I want to. Writing for the sheer sake of writing, for the love of the story. Feels like a while since I’ve done that.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What are you writing? And if not, what are your go-to ways to distract yourself from reality these days?


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The Story So Far

In my last post, I shared the news that I signed with an agent, Jessica Hare, for my novel Butterfly of Night (and hopefully many more). I had enough interest in that news to make it feel worthwhile to write a follow-up post giving a bit more information about the whole process and how it worked for me. This is not exactly a “how I got my agent” post, because it’s less about the mechanics and more just a summary of the substantial journey that led up to this point. I don’t intend to suggest that the steps involved are replicable or that they should be replicated (there are… definitely faster and more efficient ways of starting a writing career than the circuitous route I took).

Since this is a journey that has taken six or eleven or sixteen years to bring me to this point, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. You could start in December, when I began querying this book, or you could start in 2004, when I wrote a play and made my friends act it out for me — a play I later turned into a story that might have been a novel if I hadn’t abandoned it partway through. The story was extremely violent and sad. I have not changed.

2004 seems a little early, though. Maybe 2009 is a better place to start — the year I joined the writing website Protagonize, where I met some of my oldest writing friends. I wrote my first novel in November 2009. It was completely terrible, but I was fine with that. I’d written it mostly to prove that I could, starting NaNoWriMo on Day 7 with no plot, no characters, and no idea how to write a book, so I’d had no expectations that it would be readable. Perhaps going into it with that very careless, light-hearted approach is why I was able to finish it in the first place. Everything’s easier when you don’t take it too seriously.

From there I wrote a dozen other novels, and they gradually got less terrible as I went along. I edited some of them; I queried one of them briefly. In 2012 I created a character called Isabel Ryans, intended as a major but secondary character in a crime novel. Despite at least two attempts at writing that book, I never got very far with it, and eventually abandoned both it and its cast. In 2014, I looked again at this character Isabel, realised that her backstory was the most interesting thing about her, and began to ponder how I might tell that story.

The result, eventually, was Butterfly of Night, my fifteenth novel.

It remains one of the only books I’ve outlined before I started, which is partly because I had always intended it to be a prequel to that crime novel I’d started. I wrote an outline that I thought would get me roughly to that point, and I sent it to a friend to read over — Cathryn, whom I’d met on Protagonize in 2009 (see, I told you the story really started there). Cathryn pointed out quite clearly that what I had was an outline for two books, not one: there was a substantial gap in the middle, a new set of stakes, and several new characters. So I abandoned the prequel idea, and began to consider the whole thing as a trilogy.

I was in the middle of my A-Levels while I was doing the planning, and with uncharacteristic restraint, I didn’t dive in right away, instead taking a bit of time to figure out the characters. My A-Level revision didn’t only delay me, though — it also helped. While learning a very large amount of French vocab in a short space of time (hundreds of words — thanks Memrise, you saved me), I used to look for patterns and stories in the odd combinations of words that would come up. I also occasionally found inspiration in the words themselves…

Screenshot of a Timehop post. The banner at the top says
Timehop post from 26th May 2020

I posted the above on Facebook six years ago yesterday – the 26th May 2014. Papillon de nuit, I thought, was such a dramatic way of saying moth. I wanted to see if I could use it somewhere.

It actually ended up becoming a major motif in the book. I shared my initial premise and blurb on this blog in May 2014, noting that I had two guilds of assassins called “Comma” and “Hummingbird”, but that these were placeholder names which would probably change. A reader said that they enjoyed the bird/butterfly theme, which is… how I found out that Comma was a type of butterfly. It slotted very nicely into place with the butterfly of night idea, and of course, that ended up being the title. I never did change the names of the guilds.

Anyway, I wrote the first draft of Butterfly of Night in July 2014, for Camp NaNoWriMo, finishing it while on holiday in Guernsey with my parents. My writing style is always to complete a draft very quickly and then abandon it for weeks or months before coming back to edit it — I recently returned to a book for the first time in five years — and that’s more or less what I did with BoN, too. I’ve written a new draft of it every year since 2014 (except this year, so far…). The second draft in 2015, the third in 2016… it was my Camp NaNo project multiple times, and I was never quite happy with it. Some of the rewrites were extremely drastic, changing entire plotlines; others were smaller, but still made substantial changes.

There’s also one draft I have absolutely no memory of writing whatsoever, but given that my memory is pretty spotty in general (thanks, chronic pain and mental illness), I try not to dwell too much on the fact that I’m missing that period entirely…

In 2016 I tried entering the book into Pitch Wars, but it didn’t go anywhere. I continued to edit. In early 2018 I sent out a few queries, but without much conviction: I still wasn’t totally happy with the book. I just didn’t know what to do next — I felt I’d done as much as I could do alone. So later in 2018 I tried entering it into Pitch Wars again. This time I got a couple of full requests from mentors, but ultimately wasn’t chosen.

I wasn’t sure what to do after that — should I query again? Work on something else? I spent late 2018 pretty busy with other projects — the second draft of Bard, the first draft of To Run With The Hound (one of the most challenging first drafts I’ve written because of the research involved). I had a Christmas job in a bookshop, which kept me busy, and distracted me from thinking much about querying. Then, in early 2019, I saw some tweets about Author Mentor Match, the submission window for which was due to be opening in a couple of days.

The idea of Author Mentor Match was to pair up unpublished writers like myself with a more experienced writer — someone further along the journey, even if their debut hadn’t come out yet. It was a mentorship programme similar to Pitch Wars, but a little less intense, as it didn’t have a deadline or an agent showcase. On a whim, I entered Butterfly of Night — I’d felt like I needed external support to make it better, and it couldn’t do any harm, after all.

Then I forgot about it entirely, until I got the email that I’d been picked. I was at the bus stop on my way home from dance at the time, and I had to read the email multiple times before I actually took in what it was saying. I’d been chosen as a mentee by Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls. It wasn’t until I saw her tweet about it that the excitement really hit:

Rory’s edit letter did what I hadn’t been able to do over the last few years: it asked the difficult questions I hadn’t been asking, and pointed out the fundamental structural problems. Being me, I looked at it, I looked at the book, and I went, “Welp. Time to burn this down and start over.” But like, in a good way.

So I did. I pulled the book apart and I rebuilt it from the ground up. It was the only way I was going to make those structural changes work — if I tried to fiddle about with the existing book, I’d only end up ruining what I already had. I spent a bunch of time digging deep into worldbuilding and character backstory, writing 15k of notes of all the stuff that would never make it onto the page, and I let that help me reshape the story. Having Rory there to bounce ideas off was invaluable — although many of the things she’d picked up on were issues I sort of secretly knew were there all along, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do so drastic a rewrite without someone to reassure me that it was genuinely worth the effort.

At times it felt like I wasn’t editing Butterfly of Night, I was writing a brand new book with a few similarities to the old one. But in the end, what emerged did feel like the same book — but refined and recut and made into something new. And better. So much better. I cut scenes that had been there since the first draft, and writing it in 2019 was always going to be a different experience to writing it in 2014 (I’m a different person, with a very different worldview), but the heart of it still felt the same.

And, you know, there are still little details in there that date back not just to the first draft of BoN, but to that terrible crime novel I abandoned in 2012. The fact that Isabel’s organisation is called Comma. The fact that she speaks Esperanto. The fact that she owns a green coat very like the one my sister owned at the time, which is now mine. They’re tiny details, now long dislocated from their original explanations and given new ones and integrated into the worldbuilding in different ways. But they’re a reminder that nothing is ever lost and no draft was ever a waste of time. They’re all part of the foundations on which this version of the book was built.

Photo of an open notebook and pen with joined-up writing
Worldbuilding on a bus

After that, Rory read the new draft, pointed out a couple of scenes I really didn’t need, and generally reassured me that I hadn’t broken the book completely. I did another quick redraft (I think it literally took about two weeks), cutting out those scenes, smoothing things over, and making the book 10k shorter overall, bringing it down to 90k instead of 100k in length.

And then I started my job and neglected it for a few more months. But one of the best things about Author Mentor Match wasn’t just Rory’s feedback — it was the community that formed among my fellow mentees. We were the sixth group of mentees for the programme — Round 6 — and although not everyone in R6 joined in with the obsessive and worryingly active Twitter group chats, there were enough of us in there to form a close-knit group of writing friends, ready to cheer each other on through drafting, edits, and the dreaded querying. We called ourselves Write Club.

Without Write Club, maybe BoN would have continued to lurk on my computer for months more, but as others embarked on querying, I began to get something like FOMO. No matter how torturously slow the process seemed, or how many rejections everyone was getting, I felt like I should be putting myself out there. I’d been working towards this for so long, but it was just so easy to send five queries and then chicken out and never send anymore.

So, in December, I started querying. It was all fairly conventional: I used Query Tracker to find agents, I read their MSWLs, I followed them on Twitter, I sent a few queries at a time and personalised them as best I could… I got a full request and a partial very early on, and another full request straight after the partial had been rejected, which was encouraging… and then nothing. Three months of straight rejections. Actually, mostly it was three months of silence, and then there was that one afternoon I got three rejections in a row, which was a rough day, I won’t lie.

I was beginning to give up, though. I hadn’t sent that many queries, especially compared to some of my Write Club friends, but I was still running out of people I thought might like my book, especially as I was predominantly focusing on UK-based agents. Once I spread my net further afield and sent to some US agents, I opened up a whole new set of possibilities, but my feeling was that a UK agent would be a better fit — and there didn’t seem to be that many of them who repped YA. In mid April I got one more full request, but I was still feeling fairly discouraged, and beginning to think about what I might do next. Maybe I’d work on my Bisclavret novel, and query that in the autumn…

Then #DVPit happened. #DVPit is a Twitter pitch event for authors from marginalised or under-represented backgrounds, a group I consider myself to belong to by virtue of being queer, trans and disabled.

Tried to find a picture of me that would represent that. Here I am looking tiny and gay last year.

I’d participated in #PitMad, another pitch event, a month earlier, but had had little interest from agents, so I wasn’t convinced that #DVPit would be any different, but since it was a smaller and more focused event I thought it might work out better. Aaaaand… it did. Maybe my pitches were just better, but I found I got a surprising amount of interest, enough to send half a dozen more queries, this time knowing that the people I was sending to were actually somewhat interested in my premise.

And that’s how I found Jessica! Within an hour of sending her my query she requested the full, and a few days after that emailed me asking if we could have a video call to ‘discuss editorial thoughts and next steps’. I thought it might be an R&R (revise & resubmit), so I tried not to get too excited about it, but in fact she offered representation. At that point, I had to email all the other agents who still had my query or full, asking if they were still interested and so on; a few more asked for fulls, I finally got closure on my older fulls, and I settled down to wait for the two-week deadline to be up in order to make my decision. I had sent 45 queries in total.

It was a tense couple of weeks. I was waiting on emails about next year and scholarships and so on at the same time as waiting for agents to get back to me, so essentially I jumped every time I got an email.

In the end, I didn’t end up with competing offers, so I was spared having to make a decision. A few agents stepped aside, some because they weren’t able to read the book in time, and I had a couple of near-misses — one got back to me on deadline day because she’d been going back and forth on it: she loved the book, but didn’t know how to approach submissions on it, and didn’t have a clear vision for that side of things.

Honestly, I was relieved not to be put in a position to have to decide between multiple people. I hate decisions, and there are always pros and cons on both sides. For example, if one of the bigger, well-established US agents had offered… would their experience supercede the fact they were in the US, for me? What about an agent with a lot of high-profile clients — would their extensive contacts make up for the fact they’d probably have less time to focus on me and would take longer to get back to me about things? Jessica is a very new agent, so I knew she’d be able to give me more attention than someone with a larger list, but since a lot of the advice I’d been given about looking for agents included things like “talk to current clients” and “check their sales history”, I was also a tiny bit nervous.

But I asked her lots of questions, she answered them, and ultimately I got the vibe that she really loved Butterfly of Night. What really clinched it, though, was the fact that she wasn’t expecting me to stay in one genre and only ever write dark, stabby YA books. I also write adult fiction, and I’ve never understood genre (I’m not good at fitting in a box), so I was very keen to find someone who would support my career in whatever direction it ended up going, even if it didn’t seem like a straight line on from BoN. I signed with her on the 15th May, and it’s hard to say which of us seemed more excited about it!

So that’s how it happened. This is a long post, about 3,000 words — but this was a long journey. From eight-year-old me deciding I wanted to be an author to eleven-year-old me setting myself wordcount goals to thirteen-year-old me’s first novel to eighteen-year-old me’s first draft of Butterfly of Night. I’m twenty-four now, far from the ‘teen writer’ I once was, and I’ll never be an overnight sensation — I look in astonishment at friends who are querying their first or second novel, because BoN was my fifteenth and I really needed to write all those bad books before I was able to write this one.

But these things take as long as they take, and Butterfly of Night was the kind of book that needed to spend a long time in its cocoon before it took flight. Now all that’s left to do is wait and see where the journey takes me next — and write more books, of course.

Photo of a person with short dark hair wearing a stripy t-shirt and jeans, standing proudly in front of a statue of Victor Hugo.
Me at eighteen, the week I finished the first draft of Butterfly of Night.