For the last few years, I’ve tried to resist the temptation of making New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve pointed out that they’re a lot of pressure to put on an arbitrary date; that change can come at any time; that I’m the kind of overly-ambitious perfectionist who makes unrealistic goals and only sets myself up to fail.
And hey, all of that’s probably true. But we, as humans, like markers, don’t we? We like stories and names and ways of dividing up the world into pieces that feel a little bit more manageable to process. And sometimes we just need an excuse to prompt us to reset the clock and start over again.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from 2021. I was lucky: though 2020 had its struggles, it wasn’t an especially bad year for me. Personally speaking, I’ve had far worse years, and on some levels, 2020 marked more progress for me than I’ve had in years, a chance to finally break through of the holding pattern I’ve felt trapped in. That’s made it a little weird marking the end of the year, which has been so hard for so many people. Like I’m afraid to admit I didn’t hate it, in case it seems like I’m bragging.
There are some things that have been on my lists of New Year’s goals/resolutions/wishes for years that don’t have to be any more. “This year, I’ll finally query properly” was one I’ve been telling myself for a while. “This year, I want to find an agent.” Don’t need that one on the list anymore. Not sure where I stand with figuring out progress or direction or next steps: I returned to academia, but my MA’s only a year-long programme, so at some point I’m going to have to figure out what I’m doing next, again. But not yet.
There are things I want from this year that aren’t within my power. A vaccine. A book deal. Top surgery. Better health. In some cases, there are steps I can take towards them, and in others, I only have to wait. So I’m trying not to make those sorts of things my resolutions, because they’re not goals or plans, just wishes.
The question, then, is: what do I want from this year, that I can actually control?
I want to get better at Irish, which means nothing so much as putting the time in, day after day and week after week. I’ve made progress, but I’ve got a long way still to go, and always I look for shortcuts and different methods and some kind of magic trick that will just make it happen.
I want to spend less time looking at screens, and especially less time on Twitter, and more time learning what I’m like when I don’t have an audience. It’s hard, when all socialising these days is online, but I’m increasingly convinced that social media doesn’t bring out the best in me, and I want to learn to put it down for once.
I want to play the violin more often. I want to start dancing regularly again, even if I have to change it up a bit to fit in my tiny living room. I want to try and do calligraphy again. I want to remember hobbies that are physical, not digital. I want to let them stay hobbies, and stop trying to feel the need to be the best at everything.
I want to get better at letting go of negative emotions. I want to get better at keeping a check on the ways that I spiral – to stop going to bed at 3am, to start eating real meals on a semi-regular basis, to stop using sugar to convince my brain to function (because it’s wrecking my teeth and my gut).
I want to polish my Bisclavret retelling, finish my Lancelot/Galehaut retelling, maybe write something completely different and new. Maybe come back to another waiting draft or build more of words I’ve already created. I want to keep writing poems, learn to write short stories, and maybe, possibly, remember to blog more regularly.
And with blogging – I don’t want to do it because I feel like I “have” to. But to build a community again, a proper one, not based on outrage and sharp retorts and one-liners the way so much of our internet communities are these days. A chance to go back to building my own online space, instead of being trapped in the currents of big social media.
I want to see more of Cork, as the weather grows warmer and the days grow longer. I want to make the most of the time I have in Ireland, because I don’t know what will happen when I finish my MA. And when we’re allowed: I want to go to the Gaeltacht; I want to visit the places I’ve never visited that are now just a bus-ride away; I want to learn more about this country where I live.
I want to make more videos about medieval Irish lit, not because creating “content” might earn me subscribers and Ko-Fi tips or whatever, but because I want to share the stories I love with people who would never encounter them otherwise.
I want to read books in the same unselfconscious way I did as a kid, where I would reread the same book half a dozen times, where I wasn’t counting how many books I read or trying to keep to a goal or worrying what anybody else thought about my opinions. I plan to keep track of them in a document on my computer, for my own sake (my memory sucks), instead of feeling the need to track every little thing on the internet.
In the end, most of these boil down to the same kind of idea: I want to stop performing my own life, and start living it. (So of course I started by writing a blog post about it…) A challenge, when I’ve lived so much of my life on the internet, and when there are so few other ways to interact with people at the moment. But sometimes I feel like I’m holding my own emotions at arms’ length because I’m so busy worrying about what I’m ‘supposed’ to be feeling, and I want to break free of that.
2020 didn’t completely suck for me. There was loss, and there were a few months of being too depressed to function, and all in all it had some moments I wouldn’t care to relive. But the last couple of years… it’s felt like whatever else happens, I’m still growing into myself. After a few years where I felt like I was only ever falling apart and crumbling and losing pieces of myself, a year where I come out the other end feeling like me is a good year.
And on that level – 2020 was progress. 2020 was taking steps I’d been hovering on the edge of for a long time. 2020 was writing more and finding an agent and moving to Ireland and starting an MA and presenting at a conference and learning how to press ‘Send’ instead of always hesitating at the final barrier. 2020 was healing (even though chronic pain is never entirely gone). Sometimes 2020 was lonely, but mostly it was just about shining a light on all the ways I haven’t yet learned to live with the inside of my own head, making me aware of my insecurities and my doubts.
So that’s one for 2021: I want to learn how to live in my brain and in my skin, instead of always looking for distractions, and though I doubt I’ll be able to rid myself of my insecurities in a year or longer, I want to learn to live with them.
And I want to come out the other end feeling even more like me.
For many people, 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive year, which is entirely understandable. It’s hard to focus on anything when the world’s falling apart around you, and for those with kids suddenly at home 24/7… well, I’m not surprised to see a lot of writers tweeting about how many deadlines they’ve missed this year, and how difficult it’s been to get words on paper.
For me, it was a little different, and that’s not because I was having a great year (I wasn’t) — although I recognise that being furloughed with pay for several months and having no caring responsibilities did put me in a comparatively privileged position. For a few months there I had a taster of what it would be like to be a full-time writer, being paid to stay at home and work on books, and the result was that I wrote 236k in six weeks. But that wasn’t because I was lacking in anxiety — if anything, it’s because I was too anxious to stop. As long as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t checking the news, wasn’t seeing the Covid figures tick higher and higher, and it became my best method of preventing myself from endlessly doomscrolling on Twitter. So I just… wrote obsessively.
My seemingly productive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily better ways of dealing with anything — avoidance can only take you so far, and I had a couple of months of doing nothing except lying in bed being a depression slug. (Because it turns out, after you’ve attended the livestreamed funeral of somebody less than a year older than you, itbecomes a lot harder to pretend reality doesn’t exist anymore.) But they do look, from the outside, like I’m managing okay. I think that’s why I’ve been finding myself a little reluctant to talk about what I’ve achieved this year, in case it makes others think I’ve been unaffected by the chaos in the world, or gives off the impression that I’m looking down on those for whom quarantine wasn’t a productive experience.
Because I’m not. I’m well aware that everyone copes in their own way, and barring my summer of lying in bed doing nothing except feeling kinda sad and exhausted, this happened to be how I dealt with things. It worked for me, it wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else, it is what it is.
So, I figured as a kind of recap, I’d tell you what I’ve been working on this year.
April-May 2020: Bard, draft 3
Bard is a YA sci-fi Arthurian retelling that I first wrote in 2016 and rewrote in 2018, set on a former prison colony in space. This third draft was a last-ditch attempt to see if it was salvageable, but after some thought, I’ve concluded that it probably isn’t. It clocked in at 134k and by the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. Don’t get me wrong — this book has potential. It has some characters that I love and some ideas that mean a lot to me, and I particularly enjoyed how strongly the pacifist vibes came through in this draft. But it would need a complete plot overhaul to be a functional book, it requires a level of worldbuilding I don’t think I’m capable of (I do not science), and frankly… I’m not sure I’m invested in it enough to put that work in. There are a lot of YA Arthurian retellings out there. I’m not sure the world needs mine enough to go to the effort of dismantling it and make it something functional. But I might raid parts of it for another book one day.
May 2020: Moth 2, draft 3
At the start of May, I received an offer of representation for the first book in the Moth Trilogy, Butterfly of Night. During the two weeks that followed, as I attempted to keep my anxiety at bay while I waited for other agents to respond and so on, I wrote a very hasty redraft of its sequel, which I originally wrote in 2014 and haven’t touched since early 2015. It’s not that I thought I would need this any time soon — more that I wanted something to work on that would get my brain back in the right mindset to potentially tackle revisions of BoN. Mostly, this rewrite was intended to bring this sequel in line with book one in terms of continuity and worldbuilding, since major edits to the first book in the last five years meant that the existing draft made no sense. It still needs a bunch of work on a plot level, especially since some of those changes undermined the character motivations and weakened the existing arc, but it’s a vaguely book-shaped thing, and if nothing else, it was a good distraction.
June 2020: concerto for two idiots, draft 1 [incomplete]
This is not this book’s actual title, but since it doesn’t have one, I’m referring to it by the joke title I gave its playlist. This book was my first attempt at a proper YA contemporary — a retelling of the story of Lancelot and Galehaut, set in a secondary school orchestra. While I loved writing these gay disasters and it was delightful to dip back into the musical world I inhabited as a teen, this book suffered from poor timing — as my depression got worse throughout June and into July, I found I wasn’t capable of writing what would otherwise have been the happiest book I’ve written so far, and eventually I stopped being able to write at all and put the book indefinitely on hold. I hope I can come back to it at some point, because writing contemporary was a new direction for me and I wanted to see where it could go, but I haven’t been in the right headspace for it. I think it also suffered from lack of planning — I jumped into it without really thinking it through, having already been writing nonstop for a couple of months. So, for now it’s 58k of a messy first draft.
September 2020: Butterfly of Night, draft 4096
Okay, it’s probably not draft 4096, it’s more like draft 8 (and 8×8 is 64 and 64×64 is 4096, so…). But after six years of working on this book, it feels like it! I revised Butterfly of Night during my 2-week quarantine after moving to Ireland, taking into account some feedback we’d received from editors as well as developing some ideas that would lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy. As I’ve said before, this book can stand alone and I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s the case, but it’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the more I know about the later books, the more I can solidify the worldbuilding in book one to make sure the pieces are in place. These revisions involved changing the ending in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote the first draft in 2014, so that was wild, but now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I let the old ending stand for so long. I did a subsequent round of line edits during October to smooth out some inconsistencies and tighten the prose, but the bulk of the writing happened in September.
November 2020: To A Candle Flame (Moth 3), draft 1
For NaNoWriMo this year, I wrote a draft of the final book in the Moth Trilogy. It’s a very self-indulgent project intended only for myself — it relies on the latest version of BoN, which only one person has read, and on a non-existent version of the second book, which I have yet to write and so exists only in my head. Which means I can’t ask anybody to read it through. Really, I just wanted to know how it ended, for the sake of my own curiosity. Having this on paper means I have a much clearer sense of the edits I need to do to make book 2 functional, though, and it was nice to write a first draft in this world for the first time since 2014. I did not, however, succeed in following through on this particular note from my planning, mostly because I forgot it existed:
So that’s a note for the next draft. Give Isabel a tiny cat.
(Also, I feel like the juxtaposition of moods in this screenshot really says a lot about how I plan books. It’s just a jumble of every thought and feeling I’ve had about the novel, and I talk to myself on paper until I figure out what I’m trying to say.)
November-December 2020: The Wolf and His King, draft 2
At the very end of November and going into December, I spontaneously decided to rewrite last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a retelling of Bisclavret. This was in some ways a fairly superficial edit: I focused on prose, historical detail, and character development, and didn’t dig deep into plot or pacing. I’ve had some positive feedback from my beta readers and a couple of suggestions for improvements, and probably at some point there’ll be a third draft that involves pulling the book apart a bit more thoroughly, but mostly, I’m solidly proud of this one and it means a lot to me as a book because it feels very personal. It’s also a wildly different kind of book to the Moth Trilogy — it’s an adult literary novel with a strong romance element, so a sharp contrast to my YA thrillers with zero romance, but I like to keep things varied. I’m hoping 2021 will see this book taking a few steps further along the journey to publication, but we’ll have to see.
I’ve also started writing poetry again. I used to write poems constantly and obsessively, but I’ve lost the knack of it these last few years. Most years I manage a small handful, separated by months, but I’ve written around 20 so far in 2020 and the majority of them since the end of October. I’ve started trying to write poems deliberately, following prompts, rather than just when I feel inspired, and I’ve entered a few into competitions, mainly to give me a reason to finish them. It’s been nice, re-learning how to write poems, and I’m enjoying playing around with language. I realised I was using a lot of the same imagery in my novels and I thought maybe if I practised with poems, I would learn to vary those descriptions a bit more.
There’s still some time left in 2020, but I’ve promised to take a break from creative writing for a while. In 2020 I wrote 564,336 words of fiction across those two projects, which doesn’t account for those scenes I wrote two or three times, all the planning and worldbuilding notes I wrote both on paper and in Word docs, or anything academic. (I also wrote the openings for various other projects, which I do quite often, but again, I don’t count those unless they develop into something.) I think I would be right in saying I haven’t done that since my wrist injury in 2013, and what’s even more remarkable is that almost all of those words were typed (not dictated) — a reminder that although during pain flare-ups it doesn’t feel like it, I have recovered a huge amount since then.
For the rest of the year, barring a couple of oneshots I told myself I’d write as Christmas gifts for friends, the only things I’ll be writing will be my assignments. But it’s nice to close out 2020 knowing that despite this terrible year, I made words. A somewhat alarming number of words. (If I broke down the exact number of days spent writing and tried to work out an average, I suspect it would be the kind of number that makes physiotherapists give me the “not mad, just disappointed” look.) And those words helped me to get through this.
And whether or not you made any words at all this year, I’m glad you, too, got through this, and I’d love to hear more about anything creative that might have come out of this for you.
Blogging about NaNoWriMo as though the US election isn’t looming over all of us — yes, even those of us who aren’t American — feels strange. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that there’s absolutely no point waiting for things to be normal again. Because something is always happening, and that something is usually terrible.
(Also, I feel like if we press pause on everything not-terrible while something potentially-terrible is happening, that means everything on the internet is about the potentially-terrible things, and nobody gets a break or a chance to think about anything else. Which doesn’t seem to benefit anybody. I can’t speak for others, but a lot of the time these days I very much want to read about things that don’t matter at all.)
So let’s talk about National Novel Writing Month instead.
My participation in NaNoWriMo every year is beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. This is my twelfth year, and honestly, if I were going to take a break it should’ve been after the tenth, because at least that was a nice round number, but last year‘s queer werewolf novel crept up on me. Now I feel like I’d be betraying something if I skipped a year, despite the fact that literally nobody cares who isn’t me.
Actually, I did consider not participating this year. I mean, I don’t need NaNo to help me get the words on the page — writing fifty thousand words in a month is, if anything, slightly slower than my normal writing speed for first drafts — and I’ve got an MA demanding my attention, a newly rediscovered interest in blogging to feed, and videos to make. But… well. Here we are. I guess I can’t resist.
It’s a strange year for NaNo, because there are no in-person events, though most regions have terrifyingly active Discord servers (if the Ireland regions are anything to go by), so the community continues to thrive. On the plus side, not having any in-person events means less pressure to explain what my book is about, which is good, because describing this book is essentially a huge spoiler for the ones that went before it.
You see, this year my project’s an unusually self-indulgent one. Not that I’m not always first and foremost writing the books I want to read, but I’m usually aiming them at an audience too. This one, though, this one’s for me, because I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else will ever read it. It’s a sequel, you see. Well, actually, the third book in a trilogy.
The first book is Butterfly of Night, which is, with any luck, due to go on sub soon (‘on submission’ — being sent to editors at publishing houses in the hope that they will love it a lot, give me vast amounts of money, and publish it with great fanfare. Or indeed, give me small amounts of money and publish it at all). Most people don’t recommend writing sequels when the first book hasn’t sold, in case it doesn’t sell and you end up shelving multiple books rather than just one, but… that’s not advice I’ve ever listened to.
The thing about Butterfly of Night is that I never conceived of it as a standalone, as I explained in the post linked above. It works well enough as one (I worked hard to make sure of that), but it’s always been a trilogy in my head. Still, while I drafted the first two books back-to-back in the summer of 2014, book three (working title To A Candle Flame) has always… eluded me.
I’m not sure why it’s always proved so difficult to write. I’ve started it multiple times. At one point I had a bunch of disconnected scenes in Scrivener in the hope that eventually I’d figure out how they joined up. I started writing it again earlier this year, but gave up after 14,000 words because I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.
Is it because it’s the last book? Because I’m trying to follow through on promises I made to myself and brings things to a pleasing conclusion? Maybe it’s just that emotionally, it’s a challenging book: I put my protagonist Isabel through a lot in the first two, and book three is when she really deals with the psychological fall-out of that.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s hard to write the third book in a trilogy when the first book hasn’t sold, the second book needs major edits to make it work, and you don’t know whether it will see the light of day.
So this year, what NaNoWriMo means to me is the permission to write something that might not ever see the light of day. That could end up being just for me. A scruffy first draft written not for publication but because I want to see for myself how this story ends. I want to follow my character through to the end of the line. I want to know what happens. She’s lived in my head for six years: I want to complete this obligation I feel to her story.
Like I said, self-indulgent. But I’m a fast writer, so if it gets shelved, it’s okay. At least I got that closure for myself; I haven’t poured years of my life into polishing the prose of a forgotten Word document. Just a rough draft in search of some answers.
And yes, writing an entire novel for the sake of figuring out how things end — especially when I’ve arguably already done that in the outline — is no small amount of work. But my brain needs something creative to distract me, especially when reality is so anxiety-inducing; a way of letting off steam.
Self-indulgent sadly doesn’t mean easy, and now that I’ve already left behind those early chapters that were reworkings of previous attempts and struck out into the brave new world of actually drafting, I immediately hate everything I’ve written. But at least this time I did make an attempt at plotting the book, refining my ideas, so maybe this time it won’t fizzle out so quickly for want of direction.
Self-indulgent also doesn’t mean happy — but unlike those early attempts at the book from 2015 and 2016, this book is no longer as profoundly depressing as it used to be. It starts out sad (it’s very much a story about grief and recovery), but the aim is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Unlike my younger self, who couldn’t see a way out for this character that felt real, I’ve come to realise that happy endings — or at least, optimistic ones — aren’t childish, but brave. It’s easy to write bleak stories, and I’ve sure done it a lot, but trying to find space in those narratives for hope is far more satisfying, in the long run.
This is a book that hopes to reconcile the violence of the earlier books with my own pacifism. It’s a book about culpability and guilt and choices and the idea of forgiveness as a radical act. It’s asking the same question as several other things I’ve written: is there any such thing as beyond redemption?
And it’s about grief. It is very much about grief.
I think that’s why I couldn’t write it earlier this year. Since last week had me sitting on my sofa sobbing uncontrollably with zero warning at the memory of loss, I was worried when November 1st ticked around that I wouldn’t be able to write it now, either. But… I don’t know. So far I’ve been able to. Who knows, maybe it’ll help. At least I can always tell myself that no matter how bad I am at dealing with my feelings, I can’t be as bad as Isabel.
That bar is low, though.
So that’s what I’m writing this year. Because I want to. Writing for the sheer sake of writing, for the love of the story. Feels like a while since I’ve done that.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What are you writing? And if not, what are your go-to ways to distract yourself from reality these days?
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…
I posted the above on Facebook six years ago yesterday – the 26th May 2014. Papillon denuit, 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.
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.
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.
I thought about writing a regular post summing up the past year and the decade before it, but that seemed like a cliché, so I decided instead to write a letter to my younger self — the person I was as the year turned from 2009 to 2010.
Dear younger me,
It’s hard to know how to start a letter like this. You’ll hate me if I gush about how young you are, because you’ve always hated being patronised. I don’t mean it like that. I just mean… well, you’re not me yet, are you? You’re hardly even you. You’re a half-formed thing, much as you like to think otherwise.
But the groundwork’s there. The skeleton of who I’d end up being. Actually, as I stare down my twenty-fourth birthday I look a lot more like you, almost fourteen, than some of the selves I’ve been in between. I do Irish dance again, for a start, just like you do. I compete in preliminary championships and I’ve taken masterclasses with Ciara Sexton. I can practically see you freaking out from here, and you don’t know the half of it.
I quit, though, for a long time. That seems absurd to you — you’re still in love with it, still in the honeymoon period. In about a year and a quarter, you’re going to walk away from it. You’re going to do ballet instead — another thing you can’t imagine right now. You won’t go back to Irish dance until you’re 21. It’s what you need, or at least, it felt like it was at the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy decision when it happens.
Then there’s the music. I’m trying to remember exactly where you’re at right now. 2009… oh! Of course. You just joined the wind band. They were playing the title piece from Riverdance and you being an Irish dance nerd, you wanted to be a part of it. It was a great concert, wasn’t it? I remember the high of it. You took up the piccolo this year as well, I think, but I don’t exactly remember where you were at with the violin.
You’re going to lose that.
Sorry. It sounds blunt when I put it like that. It was blunt when it happened. You’ve got about three more years, and then you’re going to injure your wrists, and develop debilitating chronic pain. They’ll tell you you’ll be playing again in a few months and then six years down the line you still won’t be able to hold a fiddle for more than about fifteen minutes before the pain kicks in. You’ll lose your entire social life — this is what happens when you put all your eggs in the orchestra basket. It’s going to suck.
It’s going to shape most of the rest of the decade, too. Your entire identity is going to end up moulded by this, which is what I mean when I say that you’re not me yet. You’re still able to trust your own body, trust that you’ll be able to do whatever you like without triggering pain that will leave you unable to write for days on end, or too fatigued to move. You don’t even have any real food intolerances yet, though you’re going to lose the ability to eat fruit some time in the next year or two (trust me, that’s the tip of the iceberg…).
You’re going to lose so much, and it’s going to be so hard, for so long, and there’s nothing I can do to protect you, no warnings I can give that will prevent it. Your body is a time bomb. You could spend your whole life being careful and eventually it would still go off.
You have no idea what’s coming. And for that, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you now to make the most of it — especially music, which you’ll lose more completely than anything else. I also wish I could tell you to install and get used to voice recognition software before you lose the use of your hands entirely for a few months, because that would really help me down the line, but… I can’t.
Let’s talk about writing instead. Another thing you’ll almost lose — but don’t worry, at least you get that one back. You’re only just beginning to realise how important it is to you. You’ve got two short, crappy novels under your belt (I hope you don’t mind me calling them crappy. I’m pretty sure you’d describe at least one of them that way, and … just trust me on the other one, please), but you’re going to write, like, seventeen more before this decade’s out. Some of them you’ll rewrite half a dozen times. Some of them will be bad, some of them will be good, some of them have potential but they’re not there yet.
You’ll self-publish three poetry collections. Have your poetry appear in a couple of small magazines. Write literally hundreds of thousands of words in blog posts (and then delete all of them). You and Charley (yes, you’re going to stay friends) will help co-write a boarding school mystery. You’ll write YA and adult and fantasy and contemporary and everything in between. Most of it’s going to be at least a little bit gay.
(Oh yeah, spoiler alert: you’re not straight. You’re not even a girl. You have a lot of identity crises coming, younger me, and none of them are going to be easy, and I’m closing off this decade still not having the answers to a lot of seemingly simple questions. Good luck with that.)
It’s going to feel like everything’s taking forever, and you’re going to be struggling to find direction or the courage to take the plunge and just send your work out into the world. Eventually, you’re going to enter something called Author Mentor Match, and you’ll get in. You’ll team up with a more experienced writer (if I tell you it’s Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls, it’ll mean nothing to you, but I promise you it’ll mean something a decade down the line), and she’ll give you the support you need to tear your book apart and rebuild it from the ground up. You’ll make friends, too, with the other mentees — a writing community you haven’t had since Protagonize shut down, and which you desperately needed.
Oh, yeah, right. Protagonize shut down. It’s okay, though. You had a good few years of it, made some lasting friends, caught that writing bug for life, and really, in the long run, it’s probably a good thing that all of your writing from 2009 and 2010 isn’t still floating around online. I know you’ll be annoyed at me for saying that, but I don’t mean it to put you down. If anything, it’s an encouragement. You’re going to get so much better at this.
I guess while we’re on the subject of Protagonize, we should talk about right now. New Year’s Eve 2009/10. You’re about to lie to a moderator who caught you making a sock puppet account to boost your own ratings because you’re way more insecure than you’ll ever admit to being, and you’re going to get banned from the site for a month. I don’t think you’ve had that conversation yet (I think it’ll happen tonight), but… it’s coming.
You’re an idiot, younger me. An idiot for making the fake account in the first place, and even more of one for lying to a moderator about it and then arguing with them when they (rightfully) made you face some consequences for it. I’m pleased to report that you’re going to grow out of that, at least; ten years down the line I’m not as honest a person as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it, and I never did anything like that again.
So. You’re going to start this decade banned from the site. Unable to access or continue any of your existing stories, you’re going to start something new. Write the first few chapters of it and then abandon it until, oh, around April, when you’ll rediscover it and keep going.
That book’s going to go through nine drafts and then you’re going to shelve it. You thought it was a standalone at first, then the first book in a trilogy. In a few years you’ll realise it’s actually a much later installment in a larger series. Then, eventually, you’ll realise that virtually nothing of that original book will survive, but for some version of a few of the characters.
But those first wisps of characters that you began to develop during that month of creative isolation are still going to live in your head in ten years time. Alex Kian Robson? He’s right here. I call the series Death and Fairies, which was a joke that stuck. Alex isn’t the main character any more (he got demoted), but he’s very much there. So is Jennie. You didn’t know what kind of story you were trying to tell yet, but you laid the first stones of it anyway.
So it’s not a waste of a month. It just feels like one. It’s your own fault, but cheer up — things can only improve from here.
And they will, in writing terms. I cannot understate how much you’re going to improve in ten years. And finally, right at the end of the decade, you’re going to keep your promises to yourself and you’re going to start querying — properly, this time. It’s a book you haven’t even thought about starting yet, though you’re only a couple of years away from creating the bare bones of its protagonist, Isabel. I think you’d like it. It’s sad and violent and there’s no kissing at all.
It would take too long to tell you everything that happened in the past decade. Some things I think you’re going to have to find out for yourself. You’re going to face… pretty much everything for the first time, I think. You haven’t really experienced much yet. You’re going to lose your grandparents, and that’s going to suck, and your brother’s going to move to Canada (you’ll miss him more than you’ll admit). You’re going to have some pretty dark moments and sometimes it’s going to feel like you’ll never drag yourself out of the hole that you’re in.
But there’ll be brighter days too. You’ll go to Ireland, just as you’ve been dreaming of doing for years already. Multiple times, in fact! You’ll meet Kate Thompson. Maggie Stiefvater, too. You’ll do a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and get really, weirdly into medieval Irish literature. You’ll start learning Irish, properly this time. You’ll get a job as a trainee librarian and move to Cambridge. You’ll go to conferences, turn your dissertation into an academic article, and start thinking about doing a master’s. You’ll become a Quaker (you don’t even know what a Quaker is yet), after years of struggling with and losing your faith. You’ll love and be loved and there will be people who understand you, eventually.
Right now, you can’t see any of that coming. But I promise that it is.
And no, you won’t be published before you’re eighteen, or even before the end of the decade. And a lot of what you thought might happen won’t happen. In fact, the vast majority of what went down in the past ten years isn’t what you might be expecting. (Did I mention the fact that you’re queer? You’re… super queer.)
Will you have regrets? Absolutely. Will you mourn missed turnings, abandoned paths, lost opportunities? Of course. Will you find yourself wishing you could turn back time and go back to who you were at the start of the decade?
You’re not me yet. You’re not even you yet. And I’m not sure I’m me now, but I’m a lot closer to it than when I was standing where you are. These ten years haven’t always been kind, but we’ve grown up, younger me, and we’re almost ourselves now. I don’t know who we’ll be in ten years time, but at least nowadays I’m confident I want to stick around to find out.
So hang in there, younger me. You’ve got a long decade ahead of you, but the only way out is through.
With love and in friendship,
*Oh yeah, you’re going to change your name. It’s a short form of delorfinde, so really, it’s not so strange to you; you’ve yet to start using your legal name online. Anyway hi. This is me. You. Us. <3 Wait ’til you find out about pronouns…