Tag: writing

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.

Dear Younger Me, from the Future

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.

A selfie of me wearing an elaborate Venetian mask with feathers at the top.
Venice, Summer 2009.

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.

A photo of me with long dark hair, playing the flute in a mostly-empty band room.
September 2011.

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.)

A photo of me sitting on a milecastle at Hadrian's Wall, with short fluffy hair and a plaid shirt.
Hadrian’s Wall, August 2014.

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.

A selfie of me holding a pencil, with short hair and glasses.
Cambridge, October 2016.

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.

A photo of me looking back over my shoulder, wearing a gown and hood, with King's College Chapel in the background.
Graduation. Cambridge, June 2018.

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?

No.

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,

Finn*

A selfie of me with a gleeful expression, accompanied by a very fluffy black and white cat.
Boxing Day 2019, with my sister’s cat, Tyler.

*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…