That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing a Novel

A couple weeks ago, I wrote the first post in what I intended to become a series on the editing part of writing a novel. Editing is the place I’m in right now, and I was super excited to share my editing journey with you. But coming back to write the second part of the series, I realized I might have jumped the gun a bit. While I’m still really curious to hear from any of you who are currently editing a novel, I thought it might be more helpful, on the whole, to share a bit about my entire writing process, both up to this point and past it. 

Every novel is different, of course. So is every writer’s process. Heck, almost every time I sit down to write, I find that I need to approach the page a different way. But still, over the course of writing three different novels (and at least five different first drafts), I hazard to say that I’ve discovered a few tricks to the trade. I’d love to share some of the techniques, processes, and resources I’ve found to make the journey easier for you.

So, this is going to be the first in a series of posts on the nitty gritties of writing a novel, starting at the very beginning with “Where the heck do you even get the idea for an entire book?” In this blog series, I’ll be taking you through my novel writing process, sharing helpful resources and writing advice.

In addition, if you’re interested in seeing how the original ideas change over the course of a project to become finished work, then I’d encourage you to sign up to my Buy Me a Coffee page, where I’ll be sharing scenes, outlines, and drafts from various stages of my two main projects, The Ravenscourt Tragedies and The Shape of the World.

Check back in over the next few weeks for the rest of the series. And if you want to know exactly when I post the next one, go ahead and subscribe to the blog to get the next post directly in your inbox!

Without further ado:

That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing A Novel

  • Part 1: Ideas – Let’s start by looking at ideas: where they come from, practical ways you can encourage inspiration, and finally, how you can start shaping all your tiny sparks of story into the beginnings of a concept for a novel.
  • Part 2: Your First Draft
    • Part 1: How you write – Sometimes writing a first draft is more like getting lost in a city, and sometimes it’s more like planning the perfect vacation. In either case, knowing how you approach writing is vital to help you on your way.
  • Part 3: Distance
  • Part 4: Plot and Character
  • Part 5: Structure
  • Part 6: Your Second Draft
  • Part 7: Feedback
  • Part 8: Editing
  • Part 9: Nothing is Ever Finished

Boyars, Orphans, and Other Creatures of the Night: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls

I used to think to make people feel afraid was a curse, an awful thing. But I’d love for them to fear me. I want them to look at me and weep.

The Deathless Girls, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

If you’d told me several months ago that within the next few weeks, I’d be completely consumed by a teenage vampire novel, I would’ve laughed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate vampires, per se. Dracula remains one of my favourite classic novels, and I do admit to occasionally exploring the trope of the tortured undead in my own work. However, the YA trend of the swoony blood-sucking love interest did rather put me off the genre for a bit back in the 00’s.

So when I picked up Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls, I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Still, I love Hargrave’s writing, so of course I was going to read it. Fortunately, there are no Cullens here, only the old-school damned — blood-thirsty and tragic, monstrous and grotesque, and all the more terrifying given Hargrave’s poetic style.

The Deathless Girls follows two traveller twins, Lil and Kizzy, after their camp is razed by soldiers, the survivors sold into the possession of a greedy Boyar. Forced to work in the Boyar’s castle, the sisters hear chilling rumours of an unholy pact between their new overlord and the Prince of the realm, the dreaded Dragon. But when beautiful Kizzy attracts the unwanted attention of a visiting Lord, Lil may be the only one able to save her sister’s life — and perhaps, even her soul. 

Stoker devotes all of two chapters in his novel to the brides of Dracula — or, as they’re called in the original text, the three sisters. It is hardly surprising that Hargrave has chosen to add to their story in her first work for a YA audience. Girls has everything you would expect from one of Hargrave’s novels: characters who are vibrant and unique, a vivid setting, and striking imagery, the threats in the dark both deliciously thrilling and horrific by turns. By far, the beating heart of the story resides in the relationship between the two sisters, multifaceted and delicate as it is. Lil is a reluctant but steadfast protagonist, her gentleness contrasted with her sister’s fierceness and beauty in a way that’s all too easy to relate to.

That said, the novel does suffer from the fact that it is, more than anything, an origin story. While the first half of the novel fully immerses the reader in its setting, the claustrophobia of the girls’ hopeless situation contrasted with their sisterhood and their memories of home, the second half seems all too aware that it has to somehow bridge the gap between these traveller twins and Dracula’s brides. In fact, the third of the brides is only introduced almost as an afterthought, in a sort-of epilogue to the main action of the novel. 

As well, uncharacteristic for Hargrave, the bad guys in Girls are painted in matte colours, without hope of redemption — even Dracul, and to some extent, even Kizzy. But the worst monsters in the book are the normal folk just doing their jobs, their evil all the more unforgivable given its mundanity. Perhaps it’s because of its YA audience, but Girls is, on the whole, an entirely more grim take on the world compared to most of Hargrave’s repertoire.

But what else should we expect from a foray into the Dracula mythos? Even before Stoker, vampires were an outlet for examining the most cursed and taboo aspects of our nature. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has done the tradition justice, all while shedding a little more light on the feminist powers of the night.

The Deathless Girls is now out in paperback, available from Waterstones and

That Expat Girl edits a novel | Part I: Editing Goals

If you, dear Writer, like me, have recently found yourself in the possession of a mass of words that reads, front to back, in a way that almost (but not quite) makes complete narrative sense — a.k.a: the first draft of a novel, you may be wondering what you’re actually supposed to do with the thing. Having been in this particular predicament more than once before, I hope that I might be able to provide some helpful advice. The first part of it goes like this:


You’ve written more consecutive words on a theme than most people will write in a lifetime. Be proud of that fact, that somehow or other you have created people and places and objects and perhaps even entire universes out of nothing more than blood and sweat and thoughts and tears and digital (or perhaps physical) ink and sore fingers. This is amazing! This is magic at its most pure!

Are you proud? You should be.

Now, for the bad news: you definitely have to edit the damn thing.

Think about what kind of editing you need to do

Every writer’s editing process looks different, but one way to make it somewhat less painful is to think about what you hope to accomplish in your revision. For myself, as an example, I always know I’ll have at least two rounds of major revision with any piece of work that I produce. My rough drafts are not fit for ANY readers’ delicate eyes (beta or, indeed, zeta), and in fact, there have been times when even I myself have struggled to disentangle the web of scribbled, scratched out lines, ad hoc author’s notes, and mad-libs-style fill-in-the-blank placeholder scenes in order to turn the rough composition in my notebook into an actual readable draft. 

In the case of that first edit, then, for me, the goal is simply to translate the story from the half-way stage of the composition, into a fully-formed skeleton of a narrative on the digital page. 

Think about what you want your story to be

Once you have a full first draft, however, you can start thinking about your goals for the story in a more concrete way. On the most basic level, this means thinking about what you, as a writer, hope to do with the story when it’s finished — are you hoping to get it published by one of the Big Five with the help of a respectable literary agent? Or do you want to keep control of your work and publish it yourself, enlisting the help of a professional designer and editor along the way? Or do you simply want to share your work for free on the web, putting it in front of as many people as possible?

As with all goals, it helps if the targets you set down (and write down!) for yourself are specific, and to some extent, measurable. This is where your critique partners and beta readers are worth their weight in gold. For example, I know that I need to work on the emotional and thematic resonance of my novel in progress. More specifically, I want the ending of my current project, Shape, to be powerfully tragic. Not everyone is going to cry, of course, but if I can get even one of my critique partners to shed a single weak tear, I would at least have an inkling that I’m on the right track.

Break down your goals to make them manageable

It also helps, if you have a full-length novel on your hands, to break down bigger goals into smaller pieces that can be accomplished across multiple editing passes over your work. So, for example, I know, as most writers do, that I want the characters to come alive on the page — for readers to relate to them, and to feel for them, for readers to be totally invested in them. 

But this comes down to a few different things: do their actions within the plot make sense, both logically for the character as well as emotionally? Have I made their motivations and goals clear throughout the narrative? Do I describe them in ways that are not just un-cliche, but lively, evocative, and enjoyable to read? 

Those are three different facets of the same goal, and I would be likely to focus on the first one during my first pass — strengthening the relationship of the characters to the plot, as it’s easier to add and adjust entire scenes at this stage than it would be after polishing them all to a shine. In my second pass, then, I’d focus more on clarifying the look and feel of them, the little flourishes that make them breathe. 

My goals for The Shape of the World

So, here, now, coming back to this mess of a draft after putting it aside for a few weeks to distance my perspective, these are the spoiler-free goals that I’ll be working toward over the coming weeks. 

Main Quest: Polish my work in progress, The Shape of the World, so that it’s ready to face agents by the end of April.

  • Subquest: Characters – Build the protagonist’s relationships with the other characters more naturally and with a lighter touch throughout the book; make the main character more proactive
  • Subquest: Plot – Clarify the stakes for the protagonist; build more ambivalence and mystery around who is a threat and who is not; clarify the thread of cause and effect from scene to scene
  • Subquest: Setting – Solidify details of the worldbuilding and speculative elements; cut infodumps
  • Subquest: Theme and Tone – Make a beta reader cry (no punching, no onions)

Are you editing your novel?

I’d love to know if anyone else out there is in the same place, and if so, what you’re working on! And if you’d be comfortable sharing your writer’s editing goals, I’d love to see those too. Post them in the comments, or link me to your blog, so I can share the journey with you.

The Call to Adventure

Imagine this.

The day has grown late. Outside the windows, the sun is setting, the sky is purpling, and the first stubborn stars have started peeking through the veil of night. It’s been a good, restful day, but before parting ways, you and your Player 2 decide to take a walk around the nearby common. The air is brisk, and the sky is clear, but the wind strikes a mournful tone.

Past the abandoned children’s playground, with the swings and see-saws creaking desolately in the night, up the mud-washed path where moonlight shines, reflected in the puddles. You climb the hill past the old, fenced off rookery, past the cafe boarded up for the night, up to the edge of the grove that surrounds the run-down factory that still, on occasion, churns out unmarked boxes of unknown stuff.

Here, the trail forks. Part of it winds through the trees toward the factory, with a sign promising a pond and garden. The other branch makes a sharp turn back toward the orange streetlights and the sleepy trundling onward of civilisation. You and Player 2 exchange a look, and start your way down the forest path.

Here there is no moonlight. The wind seems to whisper terrible things through the trees. Soon the path is no more than the sense of emptiness below your feet in the dark. There, just at the bend of the path, there is the glow of someone bent over their phone, the light turning their face into spectre. You slow. Who could this be, sitting alongside this darkened pathway, looking at instagram in the darkness?

SHHHHHHHHHHH! comes a hiss from the trees.

There is someone — or something — moving through the wood. A glimpse of matted hair, long limbs sharp and bulky in the gloom. It moves away through the darkness, back past the glow of the lonely instagrammer, back into the shadows too thick to peer through. Still, you hear the crunching of their feet, the mutter of words beneath their breath, though you cannot tell what they are muttering about.

You find that you’re digging your fingers into Player 2’s arm, though both of you are frozen in surprise. A deep breath…

Do you go on?

Or, like me and the boy, do you immediately turn around and hightail it back to the lights of the common, making a beeline for the busy street that will take you straight back home?

Into the Woods

Last Wednesday, the Boy messaged me the cryptic question: “Your next free day is Sunday, right? Up for an adventure?” Details were less than forthcoming. All I was told was that we would need some easy-to-carry snacks, some rugged boots, and to be ready by 10:30am Sunday morning. So of course we agreed for him to camp at mine after work on Saturday.

Naturally, the Boy shows up with a mountaineering backpack. In the backpack were a homemade quiche, a tub of made-from-scratch mince pies, two pairs of hiking socks, and a first aid kit (which I forgot to top up with plasters). Though I woke up on Sunday feeling a bit sneezy, we set out from mine at 11am to catch a train, destination still unclear until we pulled into Chipstead station.

Banstead Wood is a rambling stretch of ancient woodland in Southwest London, still within the Oyster zone but far enough away from the center that you can see the stars at sunset. The Boy grew up not far from here, and this was his childhood stomping ground — a maze of rambler trails dotted with chalk and flint and the remains of old roman roads; ancient trees crowding close on every side; robins and crows and even the tap of a nearby woodpecker; and of course, doggos.

So. Many. Doggos.

Something new the park added recently was a handful of tributes to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the entrance to the park, we found Lucy standing guard next to Mr. Tumnus’ lamppost, while further in, Aslan and the White Witch took shelter in the trees. I even managed to take a peek into a very curious wardrobe…

Stepping through the wardrobe in Banstead Forest

We spent the day exploring, climbing, and planning how to survive the coming apocalypse, sitting down for lunch perched in a fallen tree. You know what’s amazing? Quiche. You know what’s even more amazing? A homemade goat’s cheese and caramelized onion quiche eaten in the middle of a goddamn forest. Finish that off with some still-hot jasmine green tea and an also homemade mince pie, and you’ve got a picnic fit for royalty.

Before heading back into the big smoke, we stopped for a drink at the Rambler’s Rest, a cozy little pub just down the road from the station. Lounging next to us by the fire was the biggest English Mastiff I’ve ever seen. Turns out we’d chosen our day well, as the pub was planning some renovations starting on the 20th. I look forward to going back there when they reopen.

And so we hurried home under the stars, the air gone bitter with frost. Back to work tomorrow, but all the better for one brilliant day, well spent. Sometimes life’s not so bad.

A Spark in the Darkness: Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth

Read my original post on The Book Slut here.

“You sed it taykes one person to start a revolushun, but that ent true is it? Taykes more than one. One to start it and uvvers to believe it can happen.”

Bearmouth, by Liz Hyder

The genderless protagonist of Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth goes by the name Newt. That name is one of the few things Newt has ever been freely given in the mines of Bearmouth, as they are neither friendly nor generous. The miners must pay the Masters for their boots and their tools, and even the precious candles that allow them to see their work. But work is the only way to survive, because all this toil ticks on under the blessing of the Mayker. The Mayker is all-seeing and all-knowing, and his prayer says the miners were cast down for their sins. And it is only when the Mayker deigns to give a sign that the workers will be free. Until then, the miners belong to the mines.

The time period of Liz Hyder’s ambitious YA debut is unclear, as is the society of the wider world that allows such heinous conditions to exist. But the immediate setting is dark and warm and damp. Claustrophobic and oppressive, sunless and barren; this is Bearmouth, and it might as well be the end of the world.

The close, nightmarish setting is one of the most striking things about the book. It will remain with you long after you have turned the last page. What you might notice from the very first page, though, is Newt’s voice:

Page from Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

In a way, reading Bearmouth invokes the sense of wading into a foreign language, the sense of deeper meaning lurking beneath the unfamiliar and strange. Best of all, the text itself evolves with Newt, reflecting the protagonist’s learning and realizations. At the very beginning of the novel, Newt is resigned to the conditions of Bearmouth. To some extent, Newt even embraces Bearmouth — the members of their dorm being the only family they have ever truly known, the mine itself the only home that has any meaning or certainty for them. Not only does Newt not want an escape. They can’t even imagine an escape from the prison that is Bearmouth, despite the obvious oppression and the inequality between the miners and the Masters. Newt is even suspicious of the new arrival on their team, Devlin, because the new boy’s name rhymes with the enemy of the Mayker.

“It carnt be a coincidence. Devil. In. Can it?”

Though the borders and details of Bearmouth’s wider world are only vaguely hinted at, the novel’s impact lies in the way that Newt progresses from a willing prisoner to a revolutionary. What it takes for Newt to choose freedom — and to make that freedom real — touches on some of the darkest and most gut-wrenching themes rarely dealt with in YA. 

Hyder doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelty of Newt’s world in unflinching detail: one of the major developments in Newt’s story involves escalating threats from another group of miners, culminating in an act of sexual aggression where the only way for Newt to defend themselves is by answering violence with violence. The moment highlights Newt’s sense of powerlessness against the system — a powerlessness that may feel all too real to many readers, especially those growing up in a system that seems eternally rigged against them. But it also becomes the first step in Newt taking back control over their own thoughts, their own body, and their own choices.

Ultimately, Newt’s journey is about how the tools that are used to control us are also the tools that we can use to free ourselves. The realities of Bearmouth might be grim, and the exploitation horrific, but the novel is, more than anything, a reminder that even a single spark of hope can be enough to light a wildfire — or at the very least, a well-placed stick of dynamite.


edit /ehd-it/ (verb, with object) | A long, dismal process of rearranging broken things, aligning the ragged edges of mis-matched puzzles, filing too-sharp points to polished facets and hiding the unfinished corners. Trace over fracture lines with molten gold; find diamonds to set in the pockmarks. Perhaps the thing is not a ruin after all.

Just a short prose poem that somewhat captures where I am at the moment (i.e. editing hell). Anyone else in the same place right now?

my writing | my projects

After Narnia (a Flash Fic)

When Lily Underwood, Queen of the Eight Lands, Empress upon the mountain, Consort of the God-king Achram Lord of Light, and Goddess of the Five Seas and the Islands of Orawn stepped back through the wardrobe door, she found that not a moment had passed. Her scepter was gone, and her royal robes, and she looked down at herself to find the bony, blank body of a twelve-year-old girl.

She had come back on a whim, as much as the Queen of the Eight Lands could be said to have whims — thinking what a laugh it would be to show her old uncle the delights of her kingdom: a gift of golden apples in a basket, an Ainranian silver coin pressed with her own face.

But now, twelve years old, slightly shivering, Lily, the Empress upon the mountain, realized her mistake. Her future stretched out before her, gray and withered: college, university, a sensible marriage to some dull banker who had done well for himself, children raised in this colourless world of city smokestacks and trains that were always late, and she–

Oh! But she had slain dragons! And faced demons! And negotiated the peace of Trolius! And was it not she, single-handed, who had stood before the army of the Most Dread Harmeon and stared them all down? And was she really, really, after all those triumphs, going to have to face everything again: the gossip, the fumbles, making allies and enemies — puberty! And this time without the scheming, the intrigues, without the magic of the God-king or the constant undercurrent of destiny?

The clock on the mantle was still at twenty past two, the exact moment she’d stepped through the wardrobe the first time. It was not even a decision. Before the minute hand had so much as budged, the Goddess of Orawn turned around, opened the door, and pushed her way back through the curtain of coats–

But the wardrobe had never been anything more than a wardrobe, after all.

Altered Memories and Other Worlds: My Top Five Reads of 2019

Read my original post on The Book Slut here.

Let’s be honest, 2019 went way too quickly, and regretfully, I didn’t manage to get as far through my TBR list as I’d hoped. Whereas in 2018, I read a ton of YA fantasy, 2019 saw me branching out more, turning back towards more literary new releases, and even dipping my toes into a few thrillers and other new (for me) genres.

I also made some late-to-the game discoveries, including finally reading Lincoln in the Bardo (which immediately made it onto my list of favorite books of all time), and The Name of the Wind (which I sped through in about three evenings, before immediately diving into The Wise Man’s Fear, just so I could be in the same place as everyone else who is still waiting for the conclusion to Rothfuss’s trilogy).

Suffice to say, 2019’s been intense.

Without further ado, here are my top five reads from 2019—my favorites out of the books I read that were published this year. 

5 | Lanny by Max Porter

I must admit, when I read Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I came out of Porter’s debut feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Perhaps that’s why I delayed so long in picking up Lanny, but I’m glad I finally did. Following the trials of an English village when one of its children goes missing, Lanny cements Porter’s status as a master of voice, combining folklore, family tensions, and the gossip of modern suburbia to create a novel that is as thought-provoking as it is heart-wrenching.

4 | The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Okay, being honest, Philip Pullman could publish his shopping list and I would probably still not only read it from start to finish, I would likely savour every word. But The Secret Commonwealth is something else altogether. Part epic quest, part reflection on the trials currently shaping our own cultural landscape, Commonwealth continues where The Amber Spyglass left off, following an adult Lyra Silvertongue as she’s pulled fully into the intrigues set up in La Belle Sauvage. Evocative, expansive, and an absolute must-read.

3 | Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Can you tell that I’ve been totally absorbed by the literary and experimental this year? I’m just glad that Winterson, as one of my favourite authors of all time, had a new book out, and doubly delighted that it tackled not only the story of Frankenstein, but of Mary Shelley herself. Written in Winterson’s distinct multifaceted, mixed-format style, Frankissstein juxtaposes the story of Ry, a transgender doctor falling in love with AI expert Dr. Stein, with that of Mary Shelley and her doomed romance with Percy Bysshe. A dazzling mixture of tragedy and comedy, romanticism and theoretical science, modernism, post-modernism, and historical reinvention.

2 | The Binding by Bridget Collins

This one might be a bit of a cheat, as Collins’ debut crossover fable was originally published December of last year, but as it was the last day of December, I’m going to go ahead and add it to this list anyway. The Binding weaves a gentle sort of magic into its story of regret and forgetting, drawing us inextricably into its world—just a few angles different to our own recent past. Emmitt’s struggle to come to terms with his own identity—and his own decisions—is beautifully and richly drawn. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to go out and buy a copy. Not only will you fall in love, the physical book is an absolutely gorgeous artifact in and of itself.

1 | The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

I was lucky enough to hear Sara Collins speak about her debut at PRH’s Write Now Workshop in Liverpool last year. The breakout debut of 2019 for me, The Confessions of Frannie Langton hits absolutely all the spots. Part gothic thriller, part period drama and brimming with richly-drawn characters who are all too relatable despite their flaws, Frannie’s journey from the slave plantations of 1800s Jamaica to the high society of London becomes a dark foray into the depths of human love and cruelty. Absolutely gut-wrenching at times, the dramatic tension of the story is only matched by Collin’s deft handling of historical research and detail. Read it. Read it now.

Of Novels and Webmischief

One of my goals this year has been to get more of my work out there — not necessarily through the traditional publishing route, but on my blog, through medium, and — rather ambitiously — by posting the first novel I ever wrote (under a pen name) free on the web.

So if you’re curious about my work — or if you just enjoy a good old gothic YA fantasy, then here’s a sampler of A Murder of Crows, which follows 13-year-old Abigail Crowe as she’s drawn into a web of family secrets revolving around that most illegal and forbidden of arts: magic. I’ll be posting bits of it fortnightly for the foreseeable future, though you can always go ahead and purchase the book (or ebook) if you get impatient.

I hope you enjoy it.

A Murder of Crows | Chapter I
A Most Dismal Prospect

The worst part was not being allowed to scream.

If I’d had it my way, everyone from the hunch-backed pallbearers, to the long-faced priest, to the undertaker with his black hat and long coat would have gotten a scream in the face, just so they’d know exactly how I felt about the whole affair. Unfortunately, the proper bearing for funerals is non-negotiable: you are to shed tears (but not bawl), be respectful (but not dour), and stand up straight and tall throughout the long-winded preaching (all without being too stiff). Considering that, screaming is not generally considered appropriate, even when you think it should be.

Even when it’s a better option than breaking things.

Even when it’s your dad who’s died.

keep reading