Tag: worldbuilding

27/09, Konfeso–Helpo (TBA Readalong)

Content note: this post discusses infertility and traumatic injury.

On the 27th of September, Isabel has her second appointment with Dr Daragh Vernant.

This scene gives us more of Isabel’s backstory – the stories behind some of her scars, for example. As I told you a few days ago, originally this conversation came in her first appointment, and was much more detailed, but I have no regrets about all the details I cut there. Sometimes, less is more, and it’s certainly more believable when it comes to how much Isabel would disclose to a near-stranger about her upbringing.

Nobody asked me what I thought. This small, terse remark that Isabel makes about her infertility is all we really need to know about her feelings on the matter. She’s not upset about not being able to have children – but she does mind the circumstances that led to that being true, and the denial of her bodily autonomy.

This was important to me, and it’s also one of the more spiteful details in the book. Sometimes, I confess, I’m inspired by other works not because I liked them, but because I didn’t, or because something about them annoyed me and I decided to write my own. In this case, it was Age of Ultron, and specifically, Age of Ultron’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff.

For those who never saw the film, or somehow managed to forget about this detail, it emerges during Age of Ultron that ‘graduation’ from the Red Room, where Natasha was trained as an assassin, involved forced sterilisation. We learn this around the same time that Natasha is making it clear she considers herself a ‘monster’, and I have to say, the film very much made it feel like these two facts were related.

I will never judge anyone who struggles with fertility issues for how they feel about that: whether they’re devastated or relieved, whether they feel it as a burden or it never bothers them at all. But I will judge a movie that threw it in as part of a character’s traumatic backstory in such a haphazard and, dare I say it, unconvincing way. Natasha’s grief for her infertility could have been handled well – but it wasn’t.

And I don’t doubt that the Red Room would have sterilised the women it trained: controlling people’s reproductive capabilities is usually step one in owning and controlling them, and an unexpected pregnancy could cost them a valuable asset at a crucial moment. (Which is why it makes sense that others would have made those decisions for Isabel, without consulting her; it’s part of a broader spectrum of being denied bodily autonomy.)

But making it their ‘graduation’, making it the culmination of all that training… frankly, to me, that reeks of misogynistic storytelling, undermining the fact that these are highly-trained women. It implies that their infertility is the crucial thing qualifying them as assassins, and not the rest of their training. And I hated that, both for how it undermined Natasha’s skills, and for what it implies more generally about infertility.

So. This detail of Isabel’s past, this throwaway moment that was only one small thing in a lifetime of being controlled and trained in others, this detail that doesn’t define her, that hardly even bothers her except that it left her with a scar – this was, in large part, a reaction against Age of Ultron.

It was also because I wanted to write a character for whom infertility wasn’t a tragedy, just a fact of life. This isn’t to suggest that it’s never a tragedy – for many people, it is a cause of grief – but that thwarted desire to have children seemed to be the only narrative about these things I ever saw, and I wanted to write a character whose only reaction was, “Yeah, well, wish it hadn’t happened like that, but oh well…”

It also means, because Isabel lost her ovaries specifically, that she needs to take hormones. Isabel’s HRT is only mentioned a couple of times in the trilogy, but sometimes I feel like it’s a crucial detail, in a story about an apparently cis girl written by a trans author. I joked in the NaNo London discord a few weeks back that Isabel’s assigned gender was “assassin”, and her actual gender is “girl”. I’m not sure I was actually joking, though. She wasn’t raised to be a girl; she was raised to be a killer. She wasn’t expected to become a woman; she was expected to become a weapon.

Her infertility is, perhaps, part of that; while her womanhood wouldn’t have been defined by her ovaries in any case, the utilitarian “yeet it all” approach that her parents took to her reproductive system when she was injured shows that they were never interested in allowing her to make those choices for herself, nor did they value her body in that way. They wanted a weapon, and this was one small step in their journey to making one.

So perhaps you could, in the end, read Isabel as a trans girl who was nevertheless assigned female at birth: she is trying to reclaim her girlhood, become a woman and not a tool, and because of how her body was perceived and used by others, she needs to take HRT as part of that.

I don’t know. It wasn’t an intentional metaphor or allegory; I’d have done it less clumsily if it was. But this book is certainly a story about becoming something you were never expected to be, and having to fight for the bodily autonomy to do it. And that is an experience that resonates for trans people.

Talking of experiences that resonate, let’s jump back a second to the symptoms and test results Isabel discusses with Daragh. Vitamin deficiencies, white blood cells going haywire, immune system eating itself, etc etc. Nasty work, this poison she’s facing. Also something that can happen without the intervention of poison, though – when it came to the autoimmune symptoms Isabel faces, I took a lot of inspiration from real conditions like Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).

I do not, thankfully, have MCAS, but I do have an immune system that likes to overreact to small – and often harmless – triggers. MCAS is like if you took that and dialled it up to eleven, and it’s bad. I know a number of people who suffer from it; if you’ve ever heard of somebody being “allergic to sunlight”, they probably had MCAS. Mast cells are the cells responsible for allergic reactions – for example, when somebody allergic to nuts is exposed to them and goes into anaphylaxis, that’s due to the activation of the mast cells. This is already not great, but it’s when they start going haywire and activating without an allergy trigger that things start going really wrong.

A lot of autoimmune conditions can also wreak havoc on your ability to absorb vitamins, or deplete your body’s existing stores of them, causing nasty forms of anaemia or other misery. This is also not great, especially because things like B12 deficiency can be enough to kill you on their own, let alone when combined with other things…

I spend a reasonable amount of time in chronic illness communities online – often not intentionally, I don’t seek out forums for it, but birds of a feather flock together and I’ve wound up with a higher-than-average number of chronically ill people in my immediate social circle and among my online friends and acquaintances. As such, many of Isabel’s symptoms are drawn directly from reality, even if the cause is different. Sometimes, I was extrapolating from my own experiences; more often, I didn’t need to use my imagination, because I would know somebody whose condition was ten times worse, and I could see exactly what that looked like.

I’m not a scientist, so I don’t always understand the exact mechanisms behind autoimmune things, and I’m not an expert in poisons (despite all my sketchy research). But I do know what it’s like when the immune system goes wrong. I’ve had it happen, I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I know that bodies can become a threat to themselves in a way that many healthy people don’t. It’s that knowledge of illness, rather than any medical study, that allows me to write these moments with Isabel and Daragh.

Daragh, in these scenes, is extremely careful to respect Isabel’s autonomy and obtain her consent before he acts; when juxtaposed with the details of her past, we can see why she would be both drawn to that and suspicious of it. He also still hasn’t revealed his sources of information, but he does reveal that he’s familiar with the name of her father’s lab: Parnassiinae.

One of three forming Comma’s biological and chemical weapons development division, and the most notorious of them. From my notes about Comma code names:

Individual weapons developers don’t have codenames as such, but labs do. There are 3 poison / nerve agent teams, which are each named after a subfamily of papilionidae butterflies. There are 4 major ballistics/explosives designers, and their workshops are named after subfamilies of pieridae butterflies etc. Weapons and poisons are therefore known by the code name of lab that produced them.

And, on the previous page, we had a list of Comma’s departments:

  1. Pieridae. Weapons dev: ballistics, explosives etc
  2. Papilionidae. Weapons dev: poisons, nerve agents etc.
  3. Nymphalidae. Field agents / contract killers (internal and external).
  4. Lycaenidae. Intelligence: codes, research etc
  5. Riodinidae. High level admin including lawyers, accountants.
  6. Hesperiidae. Medical and education.
  7. Hedylidae. Adjacents (manufacturing, logistics, janitorial staff, teachers for schools rather than training, IT staff, low-level admin, locksmiths, etc)

(Any misspellings are because I can’t read my own handwriting.)

Are these names the direct result of me spending too long on a Wikipedia page about butterfly taxonomy? Absolutely, and only a couple of them are ever mentioned on the page, nor is there a great deal of logic about which department is given which name – although one or two of them did involve some clever symbolism, I believe, which of course I now don’t remember at all and cannot point out to you.

Sometimes people say to me, “So, do you know a lot about butterflies now?” And the answer is… no. Well, I know a lot more than I did before, but that’s only because I was starting from zero. I still don’t know anything useful about butterflies, I just have slightly more scientific terminology rattling around in my brain. I can identify a few on sight, especially commas; I can tell you that the butterfly on the cover of The Butterfly Assassin is a swallowtail. Beyond that, though, no, I don’t know a great deal about them. We are purely using them for aesthetics over here.

But I do know a lot more about Comma’s internal structures than is ever on the page. And that is the important part.

There are just two more things I want to say about these chapters. First, when Daragh removes the poison pellet and Isabel thinks that, although it’s small, a grain of polonium far smaller than that would have been dangerous, that’s an echo of the fact that there was a draft in which she was suffering from polonium poisoning specifically. I changed it, because there was too small a chance that she would actually survive that 😅

Secondly, in this chapter we learn that Grace is a freelance poisoner, specialising in antidotes and nonlethal poisons. Grace has always been a poisoner, but wasn’t always freelance – in the early drafts, she worked for Hummingbird, and didn’t tell Isabel this. She finds out from Toni, instead:

Toni folds her arms. “Graham Whittock is Hummingbird,” she says.

As if that’s a surprise. “He told me.”

“He told you and you’re still taking lessons from him?”

“He told me his mother was Hummingbird but he left when he was fifteen. He wasn’t trained.”

“He lied. He’s Hummingbird through and through.”

It’s another punch in the stomach, but Isabel’s too bruised to care. “He doesn’t look athletic enough,” she says eventually, when she’s processed this idea.

“He was a poisoner. Like your father.”

One day, I promise, I will finish writing the Grace-centric short story I was playing around with, which talks about how she became a poisoner and her motivations for doing so. But for now, this post is long enough, so it’s time I stepped back and gave you the floor.

How did these chapters with Daragh make you feel? There’s a lot of trauma and backstory coming out – did it help you to understand Isabel better, or had you already guessed the bulk of it? And if, like me, you’re chronically ill and tired of inconclusive blood tests and GP visits… what would you do to have a doctor like Daragh? Because I have to say, he is definitely wish-fulfilment for me…

26/09, Konfeso (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re infuriating, Graham.”

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

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

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

She worries you?”

“There’s something odd about her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25/09, Koloroj–Veneno (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not trying to make any enemies.”

“Then you need to stop killing people.”

“That was one time.

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

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

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

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

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

21/09, Informo (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The man with the authority to attack is dead too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally, though, it was a joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20/09, Mensogoj (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s where we meet Emma Westray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19/09, Memoroj–Sekvoj (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You’re an only child?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My mother killed him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18/09, Eraro–Trompo (TBA Readalong)

18th September takes us from the last section of Chapter 1 (“Eraro”) to the end of Chapter 2 (“Trompo”). In this section, we get hit with some education worldbuilding, and we meet a couple of our secondary characters for the first time: Nick Larrington and Mortimer Sark.

Nick showed up in the second draft of The Butterfly Assassin, though there was an unnamed student in the very first draft who fulfilled a similar role, at least in the opening chapters. His importance has varied somewhat over the years, and so has his fate (more on that in a later post!), but what surprised me, looking back over the previous drafts, is that his appearance also changed.

This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, because appearance is very low on the list of character priorities for me; I just don’t care. To be honest, it’s more surprising that he had a description when he first showed up in Draft II:

“Hello,” says someone nervously; she turns to see a boy about her own age, freckles dominating most of what she can see of his face under a mop of dyed black hair. “Do you — I mean, are you going to Fraser School?”

His hair remained dyed black in Draft III, became simply ‘dark’ in Draft IV, and took on his more recognisable appearance in Draft V:

Isabel glances up at the boy waiting at the tram stop, his blond hair an unruly mass of curls as usual. Nick Larrington.

(Generally speaking, Draft V is when the first chapter starts to look familiar as the bare bones of the existing book’s opening chapter.)

He has remained blond since then, for no reason other than that it never occurred to me that he shouldn’t be. Dark-haired Nick Larrington, you were gone and, until now, forgotten. But you existed. Once.

The closing lines of this chapter, featuring Isabel hiding her bloodstained hands, existed in preliminary form from as early as Draft II, and were more or less verbatim from Draft III. It’s funny, when so much else about the book has changed (the published version is roughly Draft VIII!), to see the lines that survived – the ones I got right the first time around, and then kept forever.

And so on to the second chapter, when the worldbuilding starts to kick in.

The Fraser Secondary School (named after James E. Fraser, author of “From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795”, because it was on the shelf next to my desk at the time and so was in my line of sight) is a civilian school, located in a civilian borough called Lutton. Lutton, like all the Esperan boroughs, is named for a real place; they all correspond to small villages and hamlets in Yorkshire. I plonked a city on top of those villages, and then stole their names. I do apologise most heartily.

Finn Longman (a white person with short dark hair and orange-tinted glasses) taking a selfie by a sign reading East Lutton. The sign is attached to a small brick wall; there are some flowers in front of it, and a bench with a rubbish bin beyond it. Otherwise it is surrounded by grass and trees.
East Lutton, Yorkshire, April 2023

We still don’t know too much about what it means that it’s a civilian school, or even a civilian borough, though Isabel mentions here that a guild-sponsored school might have fast-tracked her into training. I’ve never been sure how clear the breakdown between types of schools was in the book itself, but here are the details according to my notes:

  • Guild-sponsored schools (spons).
    • Essentially like grammar schools. Entrance exams. Highly academic, with education in poisons etc in Level Three (sixth form) for promising pupils. Many go on to higher education or are recruited into the guild. Most recruitment happens after Level Threes (18), but some talented students are tapped earlier.
      • Comma’s spons: Linnaeus (Fordon), Latreille (Weaverthorpe), Nazari (Sherburn), Swainson (Cowlam)
  • Borough schools.
    • Essentially comprehensive schools, but in guild boroughs. Still opportunities for academics, but fewer pupils go on to university. Fewer agents recruited directly here; mostly adjacents.
  • Civilian schools (civs)
    • Comprehensives in civilian and industrial boroughs. Not all industrials have education all the way to Level Three. Opportunities vary depending on the borough and school: some are more academic. Rich boroughs like Grindale have better civs where more people go to uni. Rare for guilds to recruit directly here but some people from civs to apply.

As well as having to grasp the concept of a civilian school, this chapter also introduces us to Level Twos and Level Threes as qualifications. I tried to keep Espera’s schooling system as simple and intuitive as I could, and chose these names to correspond to NVQ terminology in the English education systems: Level Twos are equivalent to GCSEs or Level 2 BTECs; Level Threes to A-Levels, IB, or Level 3 BTECs. It’s probably still confused a few people, though, especially those not from the UK so unsure whether they were meant to understand it or not!

Isabel should be in the second year of her Level Threes – her seventh year of secondary school, equivalent to year 13. But as she was pulled out of school by her parents eighteen months ago (halfway through fifth year/year 11, and before taking her Level Twos, aka GCSEs), she’s behind, and has gone in at the start of Level Threes: sixth year, or the equivalent of year 12.

Level Threes require a minimum of five subjects for the two years, plus a sixth subject in the first year. Three subjects are taken at Higher level and two/three at Standard (it is a Standard subject that’s usually dropped, except in exceptional circumstances), so in this regard, it’s a little bit similar to the IB. They’re required to take one STEM subject, one Humanities subject, and one Vocational subject, with two/three free choices for the others.

At the Fraser, Isabel is taking Chemistry (Higher), Biology (Higher), Maths (Higher), History (Standard), English (Standard), and Woodwork (Standard). Nick, a seventh-year, is taking Higher Maths, Latin and Physics, and Standard History and Electronics. Emma, whom we’ll meet later, is taking Higher English, Art and History, and Standard Biology and Sociology.

Yeah, you know how I mentioned in yesterday’s post that worldbuilding tends to balloon outwards for me? I have so much more to say about Espera’s education system, about its universities, everything… but this post is already lengthy, and I might need to save some of that for later.

So. Woodwork. Isabel’s required Vocational subject, somewhat reluctantly chosen. And Woodwork brings us… Mortimer Sark.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that Mortimer is one of my favourite characters in the book. Named after Ian Mortimer (author of “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England”, etc, which was in my line of sight at the time) and the island of Sark (because I finished writing the first draft in the Channel Islands in 2014), he was never intended to be a major character, but became one almost immediately regardless of my intentions.

Mortimer’s classroom is based on my old form room at school, since my form tutor was a DT teacher, but his personality is entirely his own. He’s the kind of teacher who cares too much about their students, and will go out of his way to check they’re okay – which is what Isabel needs, but absolutely not what she wants. Though Isabel’s relationship with him has changed slightly over the many drafts of this book, his basic essence was there right from the very beginning, especially his sarcasm. His iconic orange biscuit tin, however, shockingly didn’t show up until Draft V.

(I feel like this will become a theme, because yes, pretty much everything important about this book showed up in Draft V or later. It happens. I was writing the wrong book for four drafts, we have to live with that.)

But we don’t get to linger long with Mortimer here – only long enough to hint that he might become important later, possibly in the form of a threat to Isabel’s schoolgirl existence. Instead, we follow Isabel to Chemistry, taught by Dr Garner (named after Alan Garner, author of “The Owl Service”, which was, as you may be able to guess, in my line of sight at the time).

Being in a lab is triggering for Isabel, though she’s good at Chemistry – which, notably, I am not. I haven’t taken a STEM subject since I was 16, and the fact that her class is learning covalent bonding is due solely to that being more or less the only thing I could remember from Chemistry lessons back in the day. Having Isabel disappear into flashbacks and memories at least spared me from needing to write too many detailed science lessons, but there were times when I seriously regretted creating a scientifically-minded character!

And finally, the close of the chapter returns us to Nick, and a conversation about Isabel’s paper round. I skimmed past the references to this in Chapter One, but the paper round is interesting, actually, because it was a very late addition. It showed up in September 2020, in a round of edits I did with my agent before we went on sub to Simon & Schuster, among others.

This is strange to think of, because it winds up being the mechanism for several plot points and crucial pieces of information. But it’s true: it’s not in the May 2020 draft, and it’s there in the October 2020 draft. I even have an annotated version of the May draft with comments from September in which I floated the idea and identified the places in the book where the paper round would be mentioned.

So: Isabel has a paper round, delivering a newspaper called the Echo. The newsagent is called Ashvin (named after the pharmacist in the parade of shops at the end of my parents’ road), and paper newspapers are, it seems, still a mainstream form of news dissemination in Espera. Or a not-so-mainstream one, occasionally, because we also hear references to The Weekly Bulletin of the Free Press.

When it came to naming this one, I confess I spent a lot of time scrolling lists of defunct radical newspapers and academic journals, trying to find something that sounded right. The Bulletin (of the Board of Celtic Studies) was, I think, a suggestion from a friend; I had lost the plot by that point.

And as for plot, we should be getting some of that soon enough. Maybe I’ll be able to keep my next post under 2k, and not get too carried away with the worldbuilding infodumps 😅

But before I go, it’s over to you. How did you feel about the characters of Nick and Mortimer when you first encountered them here? Where did you expect their stories to go? (Somebody told me once they started shipping Isabel and Nick, which made me laugh, because it had never occurred to me.) And, please, assuage my curiosity: could you make sense of Espera’s education system, or did I confuse you all entirely?

Leave your answers or any other comments below, and let’s get this conversation started.

17/09, Eraro (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

You can see where this is going.

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

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

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

With that in mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one:

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

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

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

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

Which means they’re just biding their time.

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


Isabel Ryans is studying survival.

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

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

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

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

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

A third:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now, over to you:

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

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

TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday!

Hi friends,

This is just a heads-up to let you know that I’ll be starting the readalong of The Butterfly Assassin on Sunday 17th September. This was an idea I proposed in my last post, following the timeline of the book to discuss each chapter/scene in real time. It will be running at a fairly breakneck place for the first three weeks, as the first half of the book all goes down in pretty close succession, but we’ll have a little more breathing room after that.

For those who plan to join us, I highly recommend reading The Butterfly Assassin before we start, as I might sometimes reference later events within a chapter’s discussion, but I’ll try to primarily keep my posts focused on the scenes in question for those who haven’t got that far yet. But all of the posts will naturally involve some spoilers, to varying extents.

One thing I realised while drafting the first couple of posts is that I don’t want to over-explain what’s already on the page, and in doing so, foreclose the possibility of alternative interpretations. I want the book to stand on its own two feet, and I don’t want my intentions to overshadow your readings. I might sometimes highlight symbolism or my intentions where they seem particularly relevant/important, but on the whole, this project isn’t about analysing the words on the page.

Instead, I want to focus on discussing the writing process – previous drafts of scenes and how they changed over time, for example, or research rabbitholes – and worldbuilding details that didn’t make it onto the page. I have a lot of these, as you’ll discover very quickly once we start. (And this is a great chance to refresh my memory of some of the details before I embark on line edits for book 3!)

Whether you count these worldbuilding details as canonical is entirely up to you: while many of them underpin the info on the page and explain why I made certain decisions, if they were important enough to be on the page, then they would already be in the book itself. So, since they’re not, they’re just fun bonus information. Extracanonical, if you like.

Likewise, I’ve got some exclusive scenes from my notes to share with you which, while they shape my view of the characters involved and how I write them, aren’t technically canon, because they exist only in one random worldbuilding document from 2019 and nowhere else. The books stand alone; the rest is decoration.

So, basically, I’m giving you a load of completely superfluous information that will make you realise exactly how chaotic my writing process is and why it took me so long to reach the publication stage with this book after writing it in 2014 😅

And having said all that about not wanting to close off issues of interpretation, you’re still very welcome to talk about your interpretations in the comments. I love seeing how different people read certain moments! I won’t necessarily confirm/deny whether they’re what I was thinking or planning, but I want to hear them anyway.

So that’s the plan! The first few posts are fairly long, with lots of past drafts coming out to play; the rest, I hope, will be shorter…

And don’t forget to subscribe to the blog via email, WordPress notification, RSS feed, etc, to make sure you don’t miss any of the posts :) I’ll see you back here on Sunday!

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.