Writing an Unreliable Narrator

If you’re a voracious reader, you probably recognise the structure of familiar plot formats as soon as you start reading a novel. It can sometimes get a bit boring when you can guess the twists of stories before they happen. The solution? Seek out books with unreliable narrators. You won’t guess the twists if the main character is actively lying to you, the reader! 

You may be familiar with this writing style from books like We Were Liars, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Fight Club. In all of those books, the characters have hidden integral truths about their lives from the reader, usually to shield themselves from some kind of trauma that they’re not willing to process. In some cases, entire characters don’t exist in reality in the form in which they’re presented. 

I’ve always wanted to have a go at writing like this – not only because these books are some of my favourites and most memorable as a reader – but because it’s a fun challenge as a writer. When I’m creating a new character, I always think about what secrets they’re keeping, what they’re afraid of, and what they desire most in the world. Having a character create a whole fake narrative for their world combines all those factors of their personality into something that’s tangible on the page. 

A well-drawn character’s inner life should dramatically impact the events of the story and the plot lines. Nowhere is that more clear to the reader than when they actively interfere with the story being told, changing it into a narrative that they prefer. 

In The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, an all-knowing, possibly immortal narrator interferes with the story to give her take on the events as they happen. As Harriet, a new ghost, stumbles around the afterlife meeting the ancient ghosts who live in the same building, the narrator comments on Harriet’s mistakes and victories. This narrator can see the future – so she has the benefit of hindsight and future-sight, all of which she uses to be very opinionated about the actions the characters are taking. 

Just a few catches, though: she never tells the reader who she is (why? Every unreliable narrator keeps secrets for a reason!), and she’s not entirely truthful about her own involvement in events. Sometimes, it seems like the story she’s telling is purposefully misleading, as if she’s trying to convince the reader that her version of events is the best one – or that she’s in the right. 

It was a lot of fun to write an unreliable narrator – especially one who is such an outrageous and obvious liar. I enjoyed it so much that I gave it another go, writing an unreliable narrator into my serialised online story An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, in which a teenage fangirl tries to convince the readers of her blog that she isn’t a stalker of her favourite actors. 

If you read the book, remember: don’t believe everything you’re told. Everyone has motivations, whether they reveal them to the reader or not. And the afterlife is a dangerous place, especially for a captive audience. 

For those who may not be familiar with your newest (and fabulous) YA title, The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker, how would you sell it to them in one sentence? 

A building of ghosts are trapped together for all eternity, and trying to destroy each other – what could go wrong?

What inspired you to write The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker? How and when did you come up with the idea?

I really wanted to write about a villainous girl. One of the big things that surprised me when I was first published was how unforgiving reviewers were of female characters – people didn’t like it when they did anything wrong! They were seen as very unlikeable and mean if they made mistakes, which isn’t something we see for male characters. Once I started reading about different ghost myths from around the world, I thought it would be a fun setting to use for my anti-hero, as she explores the world of the afterlife and gets herself into trouble of various kinds. 

The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker is your first paranormal novel. Did you find the writing process differed from that of your sci-fi novels?

Writing a paranormal fantasy with magic is very different to writing a book based on real life science. The plot possibilities seemed endless and overwhelming at first – where do you stop when you can do literally anything? Everything clicked into place when I realised the importance of a magic system with rules and limitations. When your characters have powers – each of the ghosts can do something unique, like hypnotism, shapeshifting or clairvoyance – it’s very important that the magic has restrictions. Otherwise, what are the consequences of their actions? What is stopping them from becoming impossibly powerful? That gave my plot a structure that made the novel a lot easier to work with.

Do you have any YA paranormal recommendations for readers wanting more after finishing and loving The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker?

HARROW LAKE by Kat Ellis was recently released and is great – a creepy tribute to the horror genre. THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater is deceptively creepy, with a great ghost character. A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS by Frances Hardinge also has a terrifying take on ghosts – not one I would want to experience myself! And LOCKWOOD AND CO by Jonathan Stroud is slightly younger YA, but definitely not any less creepy for that – these ghost hunters are very scary.

With six novels now under your belt and plenty of wonderful characters, which characters from your previous books do you think Harriet Stoker would best get on with and which do you think she’d clash with?

Ooh, great question! I think Harriet would like Romy from THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE UNIVERSE (who could hate Romy?) because she has never had any friends, and Romy is in a similar position after growing up in space. They could be each other’s first friends. 

She definitely wouldn’t like Kate from THE NEXT TOGETHER very much – she’d probably find her very annoying and chatty! I think she’d be quite intimidated by Lowrie in THE QUIET AT THE END OF THE WORLD, who is very independent and capable.

Okay, so The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker would make the best movie. If that were to happen, who would your dream casting be for Harriet, Felix, Leah, Rima and Kasper?

I have so many thoughts on this! The novel was inspired by my favourite TV comedies, like SPACED, MISFITS, BEING HUMAN and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. Right from the beginning, it’s been a very visual story for me – I can picture the scenes in my head, in a way I can’t always do with my novels. So I know exactly what they look like. Harriet is Daisy Ridley (STAR WARS), Rima is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (NEVER HAVE I EVER), Leah is Sofia Boutella (KINGSMAN), Felix is Keiynan Lonsdale (LOVE, SIMON) and Kasper is Froy Gutierrez (TEEN WOLF). You can see my character bios with pictures on my website here: https://laurenejames.co.uk/the-reckless-afterlife/

There were so many brilliant twists and turns throughout the book. Were these all planned or did they come to you as you wrote? Could you tell us a little about your writing process?

Some of the smaller twists were planned from the beginning, but my editor really pushed me to add more twists during the editing process. That really pushed me to take risks and stretch the narrative in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do otherwise (particularly in regard to the characters’ backstories). I added in the ‘narrator’ very late on in the editing process too, which is one of my favourite parts about the novel now. 

While writing, I tend to think about my novels in several strands: 

1) what the reader knows about what’s happening

2) what the characters know about what’s happening (but aren’t necessarily saying)

3) what is really happening

I then pace out reveals about the truth alongside character development. Ideally, readers will guess twists about 10 pages before the characters realise the truth – I try to give enough clues that it’s possible to work it out if you’re a close reader. I don’t think it’s fair, otherwise. If anyone wants a clue for HARRIET: keep an eye on the knitting. 

From the unpredictable plot to the complex characters to the queer pining, the process of writing The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker must have been a lot of fun but was there a specific scene or element you enjoyed creating the most?

My favourite scenes are the ones where the gang are just hanging out, being silly. They’re a true ‘found family’ – they’ve been stuck in this building together since 1994, so they’ve really refined their banter in the decades of playful hanging out. It was a real joy to write about an established, loving friendship group. I could have written a lot more scenes where they just spent time together, but obviously that’s not very exciting for the plot! 

Do you have any writing projects in the works and if so, can you tell us anything about that?

I’m currently working on a novel about climate change – about nature, geoengineering and teenagers taking action through civil disobedience, in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for years, but never felt good enough at writing to tackle, as it’s such an enormous topic. I’m finding it tough, and there’s a lot research to do, but it’s such an important discussion to have. 

Lots of your stories feature young women in science. Is that something that you’ve included in this book?

I studied Chemistry and Physics, so it’s always been important to represent realistic, flawed female scientists in my books – I’ve had biologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers and mathematicians. This was a bit more difficult this time around, since all my characters are dead, but I added a scientist called Qi, who was studying for her PhD when she died, and now runs experiments on ghost energies. It was an interesting experiment in the science behind the magic of my idea. 

Do you believe in ghosts?

No, but my family does have some old stories about my great-granddad appearing as a ghost after his death – though I’m not sure how much that was due to gas leak hallucinations! I tend to look for the scientific explanations behind things, so I’m very interested in the phenomenon of ghosts and what the collective stories we’ve created as a society say about our culture. 

Did writing about the afterlife make you feel uncomfortable, or is it a topic that you love exploring?

I loved it! Especially because I could mix teenagers from two time periods – the 1990s and 2020 – which is a real collision of generations in a fun way. It was very nostalgic to write.

What are three fun facts about Harriet Stoker?

1) The novel has a mysterious omniscient narrator telling the story to the reader, whose identity is a secret – it’s up to you to work out who they are!

2) There is a queer enemies-to-lovers romance which was the most fun to write

3) The story takes place over two thousand years – ghosts can survive for a long time. Like, a really long time. 

Which is your favourite character in the book? 

I hate this question, because I love them all! But I have a soft spot for Rima – she’s laidback, playful, bad at telling jokes and the ‘mum friend’ who always wants to look after everyone else.

Are there any characters that you really relate to?

Probably Rima, for all of the reasons listed above! I also really enjoyed writing Harriet’s descent into immorality – there’s something really satisfying about a female character whose goals are more important to her than being liked. She’s willing to be rejected from society to make herself happy, and values her own judgement above anyone else’s viewpoint. That takes a kind of selfishness that is really interesting to me.

Name some of your favourite books that feature girls in STEM.

I have a whole Goodreads shelf for this, but some of my recent favourites are Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew, Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley and Sourdough by Robin Sloan. 

Do you have any advice for young people (women in particular) who want to pursue a career in science?

I think it’s hugely important for teenagers to realise that you don’t have to be a genius to study science. I talk to a lot of teenagers about science, and hear a huge amount of enthusiasm. But it’s hard to see that progressing to the university level in admission numbers. Scientists in the media are often represented as geniuses and I think it’s a hugely damaging stereotype which might deter people from studying science. But if you have enthusiasm, you are good enough for science!

What can readers expect from The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, and how is it similar or different to your other novels? 

It’s very different from my other books – it’s a horror, which I’ve written a bit of in The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, but not fully explored. It’s also my first book outside of the realm of science fiction, as this is a paranormal fantasy. I’m so glad I was allowed to explore other genres, as often authors are expected to continue writing similar types of books – so I feel really lucky to have stepped outside my comfort zone into something new. But it has a lot of the same elements of previous novels – humour, romance, plot twists, funny characters (or rather, characters who think they’re funny) and found families. 

The ghosts in your world have their own energies, rules, powers: what made you want to show a different side to ghosts than we’ve seen in pop culture before, and how did you decide on the shape and structure of the afterlife in The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker

 I’ve always loved the idea of ghosts, but there’s something missing from most paranormal stories. What happens when ghosts live in the same building? Do they share ‘haunting’ duties, or do they have to compete for space? What resources would they consider valuable? And, most importantly, can a ghost die? What happens to them when things go wrong? 

My sci-fi is always heavily based on rules and real science, so when I started thinking about the world of ghosts, I naturally gravitated towards thinking about how ghosts might work scientifically. Everything has to have an energy source, and ghosts would no exception. The world expanded from there, as I tried to work out how that might shape a society where there is one valuable resource – the energy that keeps spirits together. If you can get enough energy, there’s no limit to how long a ghost can survive, which means the oldest ghosts are the most powerful, as they’ve had many centuries to take and retain that energy. It gets quite dark, as Harriet learns how far they’ve gone to achieve that. 

Out of all the powers the ghosts have in the book, which one would you most want?

I would love Rima’s power of shapeshifting into different animals – it seems like the most fun, especially as she can fly as birds, or explore inside the walls of the building as a little mouse. 

A Definitive Ranking of the Deadliest Ghosts in Fiction

In my new novel The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, my ghosts have magical powers, based on their personality and heritage. These powers can be anything from shape-shifting and hypnotism to clothing manipulation, so some are more useful than others. Harriet finds out exactly which powers are best when she struggles to defeat the other ghosts. 

I love ghosts as a trope because they’re so unpredictable – there are no rules in how to write them, and every story does something different. There are thousands of cultural myths about ghosts from all around the world, so writers can draw on many sources of inspiration in creating unique ghosts. The hardest part for me was picking which ideas I couldn’t use. 

I wanted to share some of my favourite ghosts in fiction, and rank them to see who would win if they had to face off against my villainous Harriet in a battle for power. 

Casper (1995)

I must have watched this film over a hundred times when I was little. Casper is a bit of wuss in this film, more interested in romance than battling other ghosts. He has some pretty decent powers – he can touch objects, shape-shift and fly – but he mainly uses those powers to flirt and tie shoelaces together. Harriet would probably beat him (sorry, Casper!). 

Likelihood Harriet could beat him in a fight: 8/10

Annie from Being Human (2008)

This TV series featured a vampire, werewolf and ghost living as housemates. It was a huge inspiration for my novel, which started out being called Ghost House, because it’s about ghost housemates. In the series, Annie is a young, insecure murder victim who is very protective of her living friends. 

Annie can teleport (!), touch objects and read minds, but only in heightened states of emotion. In the show, she has defeated other ghosts and closed the door to death – she isn’t to be messed with. 

Likelihood Harriet could beat her in a fight: 2/10

Noah from The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

This contemporary YA series features a group of friends searching for the burial site of a Welsh King – while also driving around in cool cars and flirting a lot. One of the Raven gang is Noah, the ghost of their dead classmate. He is very mild and shy, with a ‘smudgy’ appearance. He tends to disappear if people aren’t paying attention to him – though, disconcertingly, he does re-enact his own death occasionally. 

I love Noah immensely – he’s a very endearing character – but Harriet would absolutely destroy him. Sorry, pal. 

Likelihood Harriet could beat him in a fight: 9/10

Betelgeuse in Beetlejuice (1988)

In this classic cult film, a pair of newlywed ghosts hire a freelance ‘bio-exorcist’ ghost to chase the living people who have moved into their house, so they can have some peace and quiet. 

Chaotic and crude, Betelgeuse has a whole host of powers, which he mainly uses to harass the living. He can fly and shapeshift, teleport and summon objects, possess people and influence their minds. He can also be summoned (or removed) by saying his name three times, which seems as if it could be strategically useful in a battle scenario. He’s also just really mean – I don’t think Harriet stands a chance; he’d probably make her cry within seconds.

Likelihood Harriet could beat him in a fight: 0/10

Makepeace in A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge 

In this historical YA novel, Makepeace is a living teenage girl who has a group of ghosts living in her head – one of whom is a bear. Angry and vicious, she has to control her own emotions as well as the animalistic desires of the ghosts possessing her. I think Harriet would have a hard time defeating her, as the ghosts in Makepeace’s head have amassed centuries-worth of wisdom. But Makepeace is still human, which makes her vulnerable.

Likelihood Harriet could beat her in a fight: 5/10

The Skull in a Jar in Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud 

The skull in this paranormal action YA series is possessed by a ‘type 3’ ghost, who is witty, murderous and – occasionally – helpful to a group of teenage ghosthunters. While stuck inside the jar, it can’t do much except be rude, but when unleashed it can create spirit-wind stronger than an explosion. 

Likelihood Harriet could beat it in a fight: 4/10

The gang in BBC Ghosts 

This silly comedy series about a group of ghosts from different eras living in an old dilapidated mansion is so much fun – especially because all the ghosts are utterly inept and foolish. They’re more interested in bickering than fighting, and Harriet would probably be too disdainful to even engage them in battle. 

Likelihood Harriet could beat them in a fight: 8.5/10

The Nadja doll in What We Do in the Shadows

In this mockumentary, the group of ancient vampire housemates get to meet their own ghosts, since they technically ‘died’ the moment they were turned into vamps. The 700-year-old badass Nadja keeps her ghost around for company, possessing a doll. These ghosts can release projectile (?) ectoplasm (?) vomit (?) which is kind of icky, but not definitively dangerous. I’m also not clear on the strength of their ghost-on-ghost powers. Harriet probably stands a good chance here, I’d say. 

Likelihood Harriet could beat her in a fight: 6/10

My favourite female antiheroes

In my new novel The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, I did something I’ve wanted to do for years – write about a girl who is unapologetically, completely evil. I’d never seen a villainous female character – like Loki – who I really sympathised with and rooted for.

When Harriet dies in an abandoned building, she discovers a society of ghosts, with an intricate social hierarchy. She decides to become the most powerful ghost, whatever the cost to her reputation or friendships. Naturally, this doesn’t go very well for her. 

It was so much fun writing about Harriet at her most villainous. I find antiheroes so appealing because their goals are more important to them than being liked – these are women who are willing to be rejected from society to make herself happy, and values her own judgement above anyone else’s viewpoint. That takes a kind of selfishness that is really interesting to me, from a character creation point of view. 

Naturally, there are lots of female antiheroes I love, so I wanted to share some of my favourites here. It turns out a lot of these characters are in TV shows. I think it takes a lot of screentime to really develop a complex character, and show their vulnerability.

Villanelle in Killing Eve

The sassy assassin of all our dreams (admit it), Villanelle has slowly learnt to develop empathy over the series, mainly in order to relate to her obsession and dramatic foil, Eve. She’s a sociopath in many ways, but she’s vulnerable and mean too, and so complex that I could watch her on-screen for hours.

Killing Eve started airing while I was writing the first draft of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker (then creatively titled Ghost House), and it was electrifying for me to see a character like Harriet on screen. I may have made notes while watching the early episodes, because I loved Villanelle’s characterisation so much.

Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials

Mrs Coulter has scared me since I was twelve years old, reading Northern Lights for the first time. She’s charismatic and subtle, and it’s hard to pin down what is so scary about her at first. She’s very powerful politically, and isn’t afraid to use her femininity to manipulate the men in power. The biggest shiver-down-my-spine indication of what’s really going on behind the scenes is her stunning but silent golden monkey daemon, who is a sign of her beauty in public, but who she tortures in private. 

Her complicated relationship with her own motherhood has stuck with me for over a decade. It was hugely inspirational for Harriet’s relationship with her grandmother, who is still alive and living alone after Harriet’s death.

 Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder

The talented and successful lawyer in this series isn’t afraid to be hated, as long as she wins her cases. Brutal in professional situations, she has a vulnerable side in private. As the series develops, we see her tough persona disappear as she lets in those around her. Annalise is a nuanced and empathetic character, unmatched on TV. It’s a great lesson in character arcs and growth, which are important even in an action-packed plot-driven show like How to Get Away With Murder. 

Fleabag in Fleabag

Fleabag has isolated herself so much from everyone in her life that she doesn’t have anyone to talk to except us, the audience. The show has become hugely iconic because of her breaking-the-fourth-wall stares at the camera, which she uses to help her cope with a deep well of grief and pain. The series shows how Fleabag’s mean and brittle actions are a protective front, and she is loveable and loving, even if she has hidden it from herself for so long. I related deeply to Fleabag in this show, especially in her admiration for Priest!Andrew Scott.

Beth, Annie and Ruby in Good Girls

These three lifelong-friends are very definitely not Good Girls. In a desperate hunt for money, they decide to rob a supermarket – and find themselves in deep trouble when it turns out the shop is secretly moneylaundering cash for a local gang, and they’ve just got their hands on a huge chunk of that cash. Things go from bad to worse, and throughout it all, the three women are forced to examine exactly what they will do to protect their families. This explores the ethics and morals of ‘perfect’ people. It’s so fascinating to watch the women fracture and grow stronger under the pressure of the criminal underworld. I love them all, even when they resort to kidnapping, blackmail and murder (all right – especially then). 

Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development

You may recognise Lucille from the marks she’s left on pop culture history – her knowledge about banana prices and refusal to accept criticism being particularly iconic examples. Lucille is rich, controlling, manipulative, alcoholic, and unaffectionate – but I love her. She only cares about one thing, getting what she wants. If we ignore her hugely dysfunctional method of getting things done, I wish I could be as brave as her. 

Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians

In a similar role to Lucille Bluth, the rich matriarch of the Young dynasty is efficient and determined to get what she thinks is best for her family. She is intimidating in a more subtle way than some of the other women on this list, but she uses being under-estimated to her advantage.

Kerry Mucklowe in This Country

This criminally under-rated BBC mockumentary follows the life of a working-class pair of cousins stuck in the deep English countryside. With no life prospects and very little motivation to achieve anything at all, Kerry Mucklowe is the most relatable female character on television – she’s more interested in Dairylea Dunkers than success. For a lot of the women on this list, they still care deeply about their public reputation, but I admire Kerry’s deep lack of interest in being likeable. As long as she’s happy, life is good – and that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn. 

India Stoker in Stoker (2013)

India Stoker is the namesake for my character Harriet Stoker (in my head the characters are related, don’t @ me). She’s lonely and cruel, and knows exactly what she wants in life. Without spoiling this movie (if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch it as soon as possible!) her relationship with her uncle, played by Matthew Goode, is one of the most fascinating I’ve seen in fiction. 

Nadja in What We Do in the Shadows

The ancient, immortal vampires in this mockumentary comedy have gone stagnant, because it turns out that living forever has two main effects: it makes you very gay, and very dumb. Which is similar to what the eternal afterlife does to the ghosts in The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker

Nadja is seven hundred years old, and she’s grumpy, mean and horny, bossing around her male vampire housemates and being a general badass. I would die for her.

The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is out now: Goodreads Amazon UK Waterstones

In conversation with my editor

To celebrate the launch of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, I sat down with my editor at Walker Books, Emily McDonnell, to discuss writing, editing, and all things publishing. I’ve been working with Emily and Walker Books since 2014, on six novels, so our editing process is very streamlined. It was a pleasure to discuss it with her. You can follow Emily on Twitter at @ems_worth, or catch her tweeting under the @walkerbooksYA account.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your new book, Lauren?

The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is my first fantasy novel, about a girl who gets in above her head when she tries to become the most powerful ghost in a building of ancient spirits. The other ghosts happen to be freshers who all died in their halls of residence during their first year of uni, decades earlier. When Harriet arrives, things start to go badly wrong . . .  

That’s as far as my pitch usually goes, because the plot itself is a hard one to summarise without spoiling the plot twists.

How do you go about writing blurbs that don’t spoil the story, but intrigue the reader enough to make them pick up the book, Emily?

It’s definitely a tricky task. It’s really important to try to get at the heart of what the book’s about and let readers know what to expect, but without giving too much away. You just want to tease what’s going to happen. It usually takes me a few drafts!

It’s so hard to really find the core themes in a novel, when it’s so alive in your head – it takes a bit of distance to be able to analyse it properly and summarise it in a few sentences. It’s why editors are so invaluable.

What was the process of writing the book like? How did it compare with your previous books?

It’s very different from my other books – I did write a bit of horror in The Loneliest Girl in the Universe (which you edited!) but I’ve not fully explored it before. It’s also my first book outside of the realm of science fiction, as this is a paranormal fantasy. The change in genre was really tough. It took a few years of coming back to the first draft before I managed to get it right.

The plot possibilities in a fantasy seemed endless and overwhelming at first – where do you stop when you can do literally anything? Everything clicked into place when I realised the importance of a magic system with rules and limitations. When your characters have powers – each of the ghosts can do something unique, like hypnotism, shapeshifting or clairvoyance –what is stopping them from becoming impossibly powerful? That gave my plot a structure that made the novel a lot easier to work with.

Yes! You have to find the parameters of your world. I think you did that brilliantly in The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, but I know it can take time to develop.

Totally. And as a writer, I naturally am hugely excited to throw all my crazy ideas at it, and do things I’ve never seen done before – but often that can be isolating to a reader. It can feel like cheating if characters pull out magic skills in the big showdown which you’ve never seen them use before. Big superhero movies make this mistake a lot. I try to make sure everything is foreshadowed from the very beginning.

Emily, do you find there’s a difference in editing contemporary, fantasy and sci-fi as genres, or do you always have to focus on the core elements like character development?

There are certainly some differences, but I think at its core, a good book usually has the same elements regardless of genre great characters and a great plot!

I think Walker Books do an amazing job at giving my books a consistent “brand”, even though they’re all so different (blog murder mysteries and space and ghosts – it’s a lot!). What kind of editorial discussions go on behind-the-scenes to make that difficult task seem so effortless?

Thank you on behalf of Walker Books! I think at the end of the day we want authors to write what they love, so we wouldn’t want to put limits on them in terms of sticking to a genre. Even when you’ve written different genres, there have been some things which have stayed consistent. Your brilliant characters, the humour you bring to your books, the compelling plot. And of course the science! In those respects, you’re always “on brand”.

I always try to include humour, romance, plot twists, funny characters (or rather, characters who think they’re funny) and found families. I feel really lucky to be able to always step outside my comfort zone and do new things.

Tell us a bit about the editing process. Do you have a favourite stage?

I find editing really satisfying, because I see first drafts as a starting point, and make huge changes structurally each time I come back to the story. That’s how my big plot twists develop, as I come back to the novel over time and add in new levels of detail.

My plotting is always quite visual – not really in terms of needing to know what my characters look like, but more in terms of picturing the general feeling of a book. I have to know very early on whether I want the reader to be awed or disconcerted or comforted (ideally a combination of all three). Collecting images and touchstones from existing media to create a visual moodboard really helps me build out from the initial idea and develop other elements to help turn the story’s vibe in my head into solid tentpoles in the narrative. 

I’m most excited when I can really push myself to do hard things on a big novel-wide level. I definitely don’t enjoy the grammar and spelling side of things very much – I think of scenes in terms of a complete package, rather than crafting beautiful, poetic sentences.

I think there is a really cinematic quality to your writing, so that definitely makes sense. But you write poetically when you need to as well!

The sign of a good editor: compliments alongside the constructive criticisms!

Though I do dread the “it’s time to choose a title” conversation in the editing process. Coming up with a title is, hand on heart, the worst part of writing books. I seem to spend all my time suffering over the thesaurus, and usually delay it until a title is desperately needed so the cover designers can start their work!

Emily, what’s your favourite/least favourite stage of the editorial process – big structural edits, line edits or copy edits? Do you prefer writing a broader more general letter of notes, or getting in the document with tracked changes and moving things around yourself?

I actually really enjoy both working on an editorial letter and getting stuck into a manuscript (sorry, that’s a cheat answer!). The structural edit stage (where we’re looking at the bigger picture and focusing on things like story arc and character development) is really exciting because there’s so much scope for where the story can go, and it’s exciting to see what an author does with your editorial notes. But I really like the line edit stage too there’s something very satisfying about it.

I wouldn’t say that there are any stages I don’t enjoy, but it’s always a bit scary sending a book out to print, so the later editorial stages are a bit less fun.

Lauren, you’re known for some really jaw-dropping plot twists. Do you usually plot out the story before you start writing your first draft?

I’m a huge plotter. My outlines are 10+ pages long usually. What is important in a first draft is making sure that the plot flows – each scene clearly provides a motivation or clue towards what happens next – and the characters have believable motives.

The characters need to drive the plot, making decisions that cause things to happen, rather than being dragged along on an adventure. I double back on myself a lot to adjust scenes which aren’t changing the overall plot arc or keeping the tension high even in smaller scenes.

Some of the smaller twists in my books are planned from the beginning, but as I edit the novels, I usually add in some more along the way! I get bored easily, and learn a lot about writing between rounds of editing, so I try to push the story as much as I can each time I return to it.

Adding twists is a way to take risks and stretch the narrative in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do otherwise (particularly in regard to the characters’ backstories). It takes a lot of planning in advance. While writing, I tend to think about my novels in several strands:

  • what the reader knows about what’s happening
  • what the characters know about what’s happening (but aren’t necessarily saying)
  • what is really happening

I then pace out reveals about the truth alongside character development. Ideally, readers will guess twists about 10 pages before the characters realise the truth – I try to give enough clues that it’s possible to work it out if you’re a close reader. I don’t think it’s fair, otherwise.

Emily, how do you edit plot twists and foreshadowing in a novel like The Loneliest Girl? Did you find this challenging? How do you keep track of really complex plot threads – do you use an excel spreadsheet or post-it notes or anything?

Editing plot twists is definitely challenging. It’s so important to find that balance between teasing and foreshadowing what’s coming and not giving too much away. It’s great to have other editorial colleagues read a draft as sometimes you need fresh eyes to say if it’s working.

It is crazy how often we get to the third or fourth round of edits and a new reader will point out a gaping plot hole that we’ve all missed, because we’ve just read it too many times. Fresh eyes are invaluable! (Also, changing the font to notice spelling errors).

I tend to make quite a lot of notes of timelines etc when I’m editing to help me keep track of everything. And of course I used your famous spreadsheet when editing The Loneliest Girl to help me keep track of all the timelines!

Lauren, what makes a great character for you? And do your characters tend to appear in your mind fully formed, or do you have to spend time developing and getting to know them?

It’s definitely something I have to work at. I don’t know them very well until I start editing. I think it’s because I need to have written their ending to know how many “steps back” I need to take to find their beginning.

So, if they’re going to have to face a struggle with their bravery, I need to make sure the opening chapters show them failing to be brave. That’s a very basic example, but the same principle applies for every aspect of their personality.

Until I’ve written a full draft, I have no idea what will be relevant to their story, so I can’t really craft their personality fully. Character development is completely driven by the needs of the plot, for me. They need to be absolutely essential to progressing the story. If a character could be replaced by someone else with different traits, and the plot continues to work, then I haven’t done a good job at building them into the structure of the story.

That makes a lot of sense. When I’m editing, I usually need to have read a full draft before I start making any notes. I need to know where a story and its characters end up to be able to delve into that arc.

I think being able to write to the END is a hugely undervalued skill by aspiring writers. We’re all great at starting new projects when they’re fresh and fun, but tying it all together in a satisfying way is tough. It’s almost useless to start editing a book until you’ve plotted it.

Absolutely! Getting through that first draft is a huge achievement. Because it’s only then that you have something you can work with and polish and improve on.

Emily, do you find that characters’ personalities change over the course of editing a novel, or do they usually arrive in a very complete form before they reach your desk?

I would say that while the main protagonists might change a little during the course of editing a book, they tend to arrive in a fairly complete form. It’s often the secondary characters who need some more fleshing out.

It is of course different for every book, but I think authors tend to know their main characters pretty well. Having said that, sometimes motives need further clarity, or we need to make their reactions to events clearer and more believable.

I’m sure you get asked for writing advice a lot, Lauren! Do you have any tips you can share?

Writing advice is always “write every day”. I think that’s wrong. The real trick is to read every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. You need to be constantly filling your brain with sentences and plots, to fill up your mental bank of ideas. Then you’ll have something to write about, by stealing all the best bits of your favourite books. That’s the real secret to writing.

When I’m struggling to write something, I tend to go away and read lots of books, to teach myself more about writing by seeing how the masters do it. So I’ve been reading a lot recently – authors like N. K. Jemisin and Naomi Novik have been especially inspiring.

Brilliant advice! It’s so helpful for aspiring authors to read widely.

Finding an early reader you trust is absolutely essential too. I used to get very nervous about sending off my work (it exposes a huge vulnerability!) but having the same editorial team at Walker since my debut novel in 2014 has changed everything.

I know that everyone at Walker understands my writing and editing style, and we work very well together. I think if I was working with a new team I would get very nervous, as I wouldn’t know what to anticipate getting back in the notes.

Try to find a reader who can look at your work critically but is on the same wavelength as you in terms of where the project should end up.

What about you? Do you have any advice for authors trying to self-edit their work?

I think having some space from your work is actually really valuable. Once that first draft is written, put it away for a week or two and then come back to it with fresh eyes. And thinking time is really valuable too.You don’t always have to be writing and editing in order to improve your book. Having the space to mull things over is also great. And as we said, getting that first draft down is key.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?

I’m currently working through your editorial notes on my novel about climate change – about nature, geoengineering and teenagers taking action through civil disobedience, in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for years, but never felt good enough at writing to tackle, as it’s such an enormous topic. I’m finding it tough, and there’s a lot research to do, but it’s such an important discussion to have.

Emily, you’re great at highlighting the weak parts of a novel while also giving me room to fix it in whatever way I want. Your suggestions aren’t prescriptive, and that gives me the space to be imaginative with solutions.

I’m blushing! Thank you. I think the relationship between an author and editor is so important, and I feel very privileged to work with dream authors like you. This book is going to be brilliant and I am so excited about it!

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now, Emily? Walker has so many amazing books!

I agree (even if I am a little biased!). I’m reading lots of submissions at the moment, and working on some great fantasy books, for both young adult and middle grade readers.

Lauren, thank you so much for joining me for a chat! We really hope you’ve found this informative and insightful. And if you haven’t read The Reckless Afterlife yet (where have you been?!), find out more and buy your copy at all good bookshops.

Emily McDonnell is a senior editor at Walker Books. You can follow her on Twitter at @ems­_worth.

If you’re after more writing chat discussion, check out my recent panel discussion with Alice Oseman here:

Cover reveal for The Deep-Sea Duke

I’m so excited to share the cover of The Deep-Sea Duke, coming out with Barrington Stoke in Feb 2021. This is set on an underwater planet, who are facing a climate crisis as refugees from a nearby planet keep arriving. It’s a scavenger hunt, a love story, and a drama of courtly intrigue in the nobility. I’m so excited about it, and I love this cover so much!

Cover designed by Helen Crawford-White.

“A rich and brilliantly bonkers story of aliens and androids. Its themes of social justice and equality really set it apart in the sci-fi genre.” – The Belfast Telegraph about The Starlight Watchmaker.

Hugo is spending the holidays on his friend Dorian’s home planet, Hydrox. Although thrilled at the invitation, Hugo is still astonished that Duke Dorian could possibly want to be friends with an android watchmaker like him. But when the pair land on Hydrox along with their friend Ada, they soon discover that there are much bigger problems afoot.

A race of butterflies from a neighbouring star system have evacuated their now-uninhabitable planet, and Hydrox is struggling to find space for the growing number of refugees. Meanwhile, deep in the seas beneath Dorian’s home, a strange creature is on a path of destruction…

Can the unlikely trio step in before the crisis gets out of control?

Particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 12+, this is a sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker, which was shortlisted for the STEAM Children’s Book Prize 2020 and nominated for the Carnegie medal. 

The second book in The Watchmaker and the Duke series is a 17,000 word novella which will be published in paperback and eBook by Barrington Stoke on 15th February 2021.

Goodreads  | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Waterstones  | Foyles  | Find out more in the Tumblr tag

It’s also only a month until The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is published, so I read the first chapter here:

I’ve been sharing character bios for the gang of ghosts:

bio harriet

You can still get signed copies for preorder from my etsy – these come with a new design bookmark and set of letters to the reader about all of my books, plus a set of art prints. There are 16 left and I won’t be restocking when they’re sold out.

I have an interview in VOCAB magazine here. I talk about writing craft – outlines, plot arcs, and editing!

Upcoming events:

Monthly: Sparks Young Writers classes, Coventry – book here for September 2020 onwards

Sat 26th Sept: WOWCON zoom workshop on working with agents, 8pm – book here

September: Online YA mentoring course for writers through WriteMentor

I read aloud some of the storyline about a fictional virus pandemic from The Quiet at the End of the World, including Maya and Riz’s social media posts:

And I think that’s all for now, folks! Stay safe, and I’d love it if you could preorder HARRIET STOKER and support the book!


Reading recs – fandoms, internet detectives and unreliable narrators

I wanted to recommend some books that are about fandom, if An Unauthorised Fan Treatise has given you an itch for more content that needs scratching. Obviously the first rec is the MsScribe story – it is better than any novel! – but here are some others.

Fiction about fandom

17776: What football will look like in the future by Jon Bois
– this is a free online story you can read at the link. It’s weird at first, but stick with it and it will blow your mind!

A scar no one else can see – free online story that starts as an essay about Carly Rae Jepsen’s music, by the writer of the recent Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency TV show

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite –  A dark comedy novella about a woman whose sister keeps ‘accidentally’ killing her boyfriends. When her sister starts dating the co-worker she’s crushing on, she has to decide where her loyalty lies – with her friend,who might die, or with her sister. This is less fandom related and more murder mystery related, but I wanted to rec it anyway!

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – A fictional take on a spoke history of a seventies rock band feud. A great look at unreliable narrators and biased storytelling.

Ship It by Britta Lundin –  A complex and complicated look at fandom’s hopes for their favourite TV shows, compared to the intentions of the writers. 

Grace and the Fever by Zan Romanoff – Boy bands! Fangirls! Secret relationships!

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman –  A dark and funny look what happens when online fandom collides with real life in messy, bittersweet detail. Exposes the reality of being a fan – and being famous – without holding back any punches. 

Heartstream by Tom Pollock – A near-future sci fi YA looking at what might happen to influencers and online personalities in the future.

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach – a girl who never leaves her house becomes obsessed with a guy online, and stalks him through the internet.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – The classic. If you haven’t read this yet, go now!

The Princess and the Fangirl by Ashley Poston –  Funny, crammed full of fandom references and utterly enjoyable, this series never fails to make me smile! 

The Paper & Hearts Society by Lucy Powrie –  A heartwarming, uplifting look at the power of friendship and the dangers of bullying online. Tabby stole my heart with her very realistic anxieties, worries and joy of books. A UK based summer road trip book that will make you desperate to make a book club of your very own. 

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde –  A love song for fandom, this is a great look at how fan spaces welcome and celebrate diversity. Really great autistic rep in particular. It’s a quick read and I really enjoyed this. 

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson – the friendship between two girls, told only through their online messages. Really modern and unique.

Fiction with unreliable narrators

Gottie is obviously a massively unreliable storyteller. She’s already been caught telling quite  a few lies. So here are some recs for other books where the protagonist isn’t quite as trustworthy as they’d like you to believe.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier  – Blurb: Micah will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing? Taking readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly. 

A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland  –  An old man is trapped in prison, accused of witchcraft. An old man who has spent his life learning how to tell stories, and manipulate perceptions. An old man who will do anything to get free. An old man, who single-handedley manages to take down an entire government from a prison cell….. 

Blurb:  In a bleak, far-northern land, a wandering storyteller is arrested on charges of witchcraft. Though Chant protests his innocence, he is condemned not only as a witch, but a spy. His only chance to save himself rests with the skills he has honed for decades – tell a good story, catch and hold their attention, or die.
But the attention he catches is that of the five elected rulers of the country, and Chant finds himself caught in a tangled, corrupt political game which began long before he ever arrived here. As he’s snatched from one Queen’s grasp to another’s, he realizes that he could either be a pawn for one of them… or a player in his own right. After all, he knows better than anyone how powerful the right story can be: Powerful enough to save a life, certainly. Perhaps even powerful enough to bring a nation to its knees. 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  – Blurb: Oct. 11th, 1943 – A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy? 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson  –  This book is a work of art. It’s disturbing and insidiously affecting and has a surprisingly happy ending. I don’t often reread books, but I will reread this many times. 

Blurb:  My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise, I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead…

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart –  I don’t even know how to describe this book. With one of the most breathtaking, unexpected, I-need-to-reread-this-immediately plot twists of all time, I think this book changed my perspective on what YA is and can be forever. This is a MASTERPIECE. everyone said I’d have to go back and reread it, but I didn’t believe them. I had to go back and reread it. 

Blurb; A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth. 

 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters –  This is set in Victorian England, and tells the story of Sue, a thief, and Maud, the noble lady she is trying to rob. Their lives are tied together in unexpected ways, made even more complicated when they fall in love. Full of twists, romance and betrayal, I promise you that once you start this story you won’t be able to put it down. 

Blurb: Growing up as a foster child among a family of thieves, orphan Sue Trinder hopes to pay back that kindness by playing a key role in a swindle scheme devised by their leader, Gentleman, who is planning to con a fortune out of the naive Maud Lilly, but Sue’s growing pity for their helpless victim could destroy the plot. 

K-PAX The Trilogy by Gene Brewer  – Blurb:  When a man who claims to be from outer space is brought into the Manhattan Institute, the mental ward seems to be just the place for him. Clever, inscrutable and utterly charismatic, Robert Porter calls himself ‘prot’ and has no traceable background – but he claims that he is an inhabitant of the planet K-PAX, a perfect world without wars. 

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk  -Blurb:  Fight Club’s estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret after-hours boxing matches in the basement of bars. There, two men fight “as long as they have to.” 


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara – how detective work can be done from the home and catch real, actual killers

Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison – a history of fandom and fan spaces online. 

The Missing Cryptoqueen – a BBC podcast about a cryptocurrency scam.

The Cassandra Clare one (PDF) 2006 – This one is about the YA author from her Harry Potter fandom days, circa 2002 on LiveJournal. A masterclass in detective work

That Lorde powerpoint (PDF) 2018 – everyone has seen this one recently, I think, about Lorde’s affair with her producer. A fresh take on the typical fan essay, that’s very visual.

The Scott/Tessa secret baby one (PDF) 2013 – A view into the mind of a fan who is convinced the ice skaters are not only in a relationship, but have a child.

Kaylor timeline (PDF) 2015 – a collection of meticulously compiled tumblr posts documenting every interaciton that Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss have ever had. A+ work, here.

The real life cult (PDF) 2002 – WHY

Caroline Calloway and Natalie Beach 2019 – Still on-going! See here for more.

The terrifying Korean stalkers (PDF) 2012– this gives me chills, still.

The Dan/Phil one (PDF) 2011 – I really hope the person who researched this now works for the FBI because the level of detail is immense. This is the only youtuber one on this list, but I’m sure there’s a lot more of these kind of essays out there. Happily, Dan and Phil came public as a couple this year!

The inevitable One Direction one (PDF) 2014 – I LOVE THIS. (Also worthy of note: 1D’s rainbow bears)

The msscribe story (PDF) 2006 – The original. The best. If you read the above Cassandra Claire saga, a lot of the cast involved in that will be familiar to you here. This involves a fan who desperately tried to become friends with Cassandra Clare, and ended up causing a huge rift in the community instead. This literally rewrote my brain and made me the human being I am today. (I am old enough to recognise a lot of the usernames in this story. I wasn’t there in 2001, but I was definitely in the HP fandom a few years after that.) Here’s a sample chapter. It’s like the Serial podcast, in the sheer scale of collaborative investigation going on in real time with readers.

More general weird ‘internet detective’ stories

 A Royal Instagram Mystery  – Two royal couples, two Instagram accounts, one conspiracy theory.

By the same author of that article, one of my perennial favourites, which I reread once a year – My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers 

The Case of the Missing Hit by Reply All Podcast – A man in California is haunted by the memory of a pop song from his youth. He can remember the lyrics and the melody. But the song itself has vanished, completely scrubbed from the internet. 

My Ex-Boyfriend’s New Girlfriend Is Lady Gaga 

Why Am I So Soothed by Photos of the Olsen Twins Smoking? 

A Facebook Page Imploded After The Owner Of A Hip Flea Market Asked For Suggestions 

Remember That Time Adam From Owl City Declared His Love For Taylor Swift? 

Someone on Instagram is claiming Jameela Jamil is ‘faking’ all her illnesses  – the ‘JJ’ highlight on this instagram 

I hope you find some fun reading! Let me know which of these you’ve read, and any I’ve missed that you love (I will buy them immediately, I promise. I need more, always.)

– lauren

Plotting An Unauthorised Fan Treatise

After reading the full novel, you’re probably getting an idea of how hard An Unauthorised Fan Treatise was to write. There are multiple timelines and several layers of perception – what’s really going on; what Gottie thinks is going on; and what she’s telling the reader is going on as an unreliable narrator.

I wanted to share some of the techniques of how I made it all fit together. The pictures in this post are all taken from Instagram stories, where I documented the process at the time. My Instagram is laurenelizjames.

I started writing the novel in July 2018 . I’d known for a couple of years that I wanted to write a novel about fandom, so I’d been doing lots of research into fandom history (like this project). I knew there would be two timelines, one in modern “Tumblr era” fandom, and one in noughties “LiveJournal era” fandom. I wanted to highlight and emphasise the generation differences and similarities between the eras. I just didn’t know how they would interact yet. 

I decided to start writing it properly when my dad was in hospital for a triple heart bypass (he’s better than fine now!). I thought it would be a good way to distract myself. 

It worked – I immediately was writing around 6 – 10 thousand words a day. The essay format meant I flew through it. I didn’t really have a sense of what it would be yet – I thought I could finish in 25,000 words. It ended up being 67,000 words.

The first draft was VERY basic. There wasn’t any layers of perception yet, and the timeline was simplistic and chronological. But I had an idea of the structure – and it was proof-of-concept more than anything, at that stage.

The next step was to make something good out of it. I wanted it to stand up against other murder mysteries, as a solid piece of detective fiction, with clues, red herrings and false leads. I didn’t want to simply coast along on having an innovative structure.  So I went back to the drawing board and began replotting. I waited a couple of months, until November 2018.

At first, my brain was just a mess – I’d given the draft to some author friends to read, who all told me the ‘guesses’ they’d had for what was going on as they progressed through it. Some of those things were ideas I’d intended the reader to be misled about, but some were just random stuff I hadn’t considered. I had to decide whether it went with the tone of the story to leave that assumption in place. If it didn’t work, I had to include enough information to bring the reader back in line with the expectations I wanted them to have. 

This led to a very complicated Word document of all the things I knew I needed to fix – including suggestions from my agent, who is very good at spotting plot problems I don’t pick up on. Because she was coming at it from a non-fandom perspective, she pointed out stuff that didn’t work for a reader who wasn’t in the world of internet sleuthing. 

I ended up writing plot points on bits of paper, and rearranging them to see what might work. Every change had implications across multiple timelines, and would shift what readers knew was going on. I had a few potential ideas for things I could add, but I didn’t know which to choose. 

The thing that I found hardest was trying to find a way to articulate the different layers of perception in what the reader thinks, what Gottie thinks, etc. It was almost like there were parallel alternate universes, and I had to know what was going on in each of them. In the spreadsheet above, I had columns for ‘what’s actually happening’, ‘what the reader thinks is happening’, ‘what gottie wants people to think is happening’, etc. 

I had a few different versions of this spreadsheet where I played through the implications of making certain changes or additions to the plot. If X happens in Chapter 6, what will that do to Chapter 12? If I do Y in Chapter 2 instead, will this crucial thing still happen in Chapter 20, or will it be pushed to Chapter 29, which is too late in the story? 

That failed. So I went back to working on The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker (September 2020! Preorder now!) and promoting The Quiet at the End of the World. In the process of editing Harriet, I came up with a technique that really helped me work through plot reveals. That novel also has a lot of twists and turns, and I started marking up points in the document where reveals occurred, as markers during editing to help me keep track of the reader’s understanding. 

Immediately, I knew how to fix it. After agonising over different methods, I saw what Gottie had to do to make the plot work. One of the hard things about the essay format was that a lot of potential plot ideas just didn’t work. There was simply no way I could convey certain types of action to the reader within the premise of Gottie posting blog entries and comments online. I couldn’t make the format work in my favour, rather than holding me back. And I didn’t want to write something weaker than I could have written in prose, because that defeats the whole point of the novel.

It took that time to find an idea that fitted all of the restrictions I’ve placed on it. This, for me, is simultaneously the best and worst part of writing. By building a novel, you’re constantly boxing yourself in and cutting off the infinite possibilities of writing. It’s like you’re creating conditions in a maths equation – there are only a limited number of solutions, and the more detail you add, the more real your world becomes, but the harder it is to find a solution to fix. Sometimes, you have to have a whole new axis to the graph to even find something that works (this metaphor is getting out of control). It’s a huge, exhilarating thrill when you do solve it.

After that, it was all easy. I edited it in about a month, once I’d come up with a solution. From November 2018, I’d been maintaining a list on an app called Workflowy  of all the fun internet things I saw people do. Good GQ profile pieces, Reddit Conspiracy theory threads, Twitter detective work (‘It’s……. Rebekah Vardy.’) I stormed through the edits by just picking out bullet point items and copying the format of that type of internet communication, trying to make it fit into the context of what plot I needed to add to the existing essay I wrote in July 2018.

I started posting it in October. From beginning to publication, it was just over two years, which is an unbelievably short turn-around for a novel. It still feels completely fresh and new to me – The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, for example, I’ve been working on since 2016! 

The plotting doesn’t end there – once I started posting it, I began to see feedback from readers. I built on all your comments, right from the beginning, about what you thought was going to happen, and what plot points you’d picked up on. I made some minor changes, and then some big changes at the end – mainly additions to the existing novel addressing things you were interested in, and building them out.  Right up until the end, I was adding things to the last few chapters before they were posted. 

It’s a work in progress in a lot of ways, and if I decide to go ahead with publishing it physically, I’m sure it would change even more, to become a stronger story. It’s improved my writing craft so much, because it was such a challenge, and I’m sure there are still things I’m not a good enough writer to do really well. As I get better at writing, I want to come back to this and keep stretching and pushing the limits of the constricted format.

Hopefully this was useful, to see what goes on behind the scenes in writing a book! If you have any questions, I’ll answer them in the comments. 

– lauren

Panel for the YA Book Prize with Malorie Blackman, Juno Dawson, Jenny Downham and Booksandquills

Thanks to Sanne for the wonderful chairing! It’s hard to do panels in the age of social distancing, but I love that we can reach a wider audience, with no geographic limits. This was a lot of fun (and I’m definitely fangirling over doing an event with MALORIE BLACKMAN!)

The winner of the YA Book Prize is announced on Thursday, and I’m so excited to see which of my amazing cohort has won!

I’ve also done a podcast about The Quiet at the End of the World and An Unauthorised Fan Treatise here.

If you’ve finished An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, THANK YOU! Your lovely reviews make me so happy!

Absolutely phenomenal. As a longtime fan, every chapter hit me like a gut-punch. The references to real-life fandom drama, the lingo, the way she could change her tone and cadence while writing not just as Gottie but as so many different commenters–just incredible. Ridiculous skillful writing and I’ll definitely be checking out more works by her. – Caroline on Goodreads

“An Unauthorised Fan Treatise is one of the most compelling serialised forms of media I’ve experienced in a good while, blending thriller, mystery and some slick plot twists into a deftly genre-defying homage to the toxicity of fandom. Chock full of footnotes, hyperlinks, screencaps, court transcripts, and even fake social media accounts, Lauren James has taken an insider’s experience of fandom and translated it into an unmistakable, even unforgettable experience.” – Tasha on Goodreads

I’ve done a long spoilery chat about the project:

And I’m sharing weekly snippets from The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker. Here’s the latest. (Preorder link here)


Recent reads!

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold – I’ve been diving deep into escapist genre fiction during lockdown, and this – number 15 in the space opera series the Vorkosigan Saga – was an excellent example of the form. A bit silly, with a comedy of errors, fake dating, embarrassing family members, a heist, underground tunnels, and fun space tech. I love these sprawling books about the ridiculous Vorkosigan family!

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang – The second short story collection from the writer of Arrival (2016), these are thoughtful science-based stories about big concepts – the tendency of the universe towards entropy, the obsolescence breakdown of technology, the search for God in fossil records – that Chiang has humanised and explained through narratives. Characterisation isn’t always his strong point, but the science is fascinating enough that I would happily read his stories forever. It inspires my own writing hugely.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Wonderful. Lost memories and closed environments and unreliable narrators and untrustworthy companions. I won’t say any more than that, as I know this is greatly anticipated – and isn’t out for a while yet.

Slippery Creatures by K.J. Charles – A 1920s romance about an ex-soldier who inherits a bookshop and, along with it, a hidden secret code that the War Office and many gangsters are very keen to get their hands on. KJ Charles is on top form here.

And two rereads from my childhood:

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – This is one of my favourite films, and the book is just as good, building out the story in surprising and unexpected ways. It cemented all of my reading tastes into place at a formative age: magical houses, dilapidated grandeur, found families, lush food, furious and feral ladies, spoilt wizards, charismatic monsters & unreliable narration.

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley – A retelling of Sleeping Beauty that I’ve read approximately 50 times since I was a kid. So feminist and witchy and unexpected. As an adult and writer, I now have some qualms with the pacing/narrative style, but the characters are so important to me that I can forgive all.

Hope you’re all staying safe!

Complete novel is free to read online now!

I’ve now finished posting my murder mystery novel online at gottiewrites.wordpress.com You can read the whole thing for free. I’ve been blown away by the response so far – here are some of my favourite reviews:

“An absolutely pitch-perfect portrayal of fandom by an author obviously fluent in fan culture. It made me deeply nostalgic for my LiveJournal days. I devoured it and I hope it starts a trend of novels about fandom told in the form of social media posts.” – Lizzy on Goodreads

“James understands fandom. Even fictionalized this is the most accurate depiction of fandom I’ve ever read about and I would love for James to write more based around fandom. James understands the obsession, the memes, and the love and sometimes scary world of fandom. Of what can happen when you piss off the wrong person in your fandom, if you ship something no one else does, if your opinion differs or your theories don’t align with the rest of the fandom. Fandom can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be toxic.” – Sarah on Goodreads

“Gottie is the girl you love to hate. She makes so many unbelievable choices throughout the course of the story but it’s impossible to turn away as she uncovers secrets about Rob’s own online past. It’s an excellent exploration of fandom culture, especially the examinations of what fannish behaviour is okay and what borders on stalking or harassment. This is definitely one of the most nuanced representations I’ve seen of online culture and I applaud Lauren for the effort she put into it.” – Em on Goodreads

Thank you to everyone who’s supported it, either by talking about it online or through Ko-Fi/Patreon! It was such a risky project to do and it means the world to me that so many of you have responded so well.

On 13th May at 6pm BST, I’m going to be answering spoiler-filled questions about the completed novel over on the fan-run Discord. You can join here: discord.gg/n85j3dQ

In other news, here’s a snippet of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, which comes out in four months:

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I didan interview with The Bookseller about The Quiet at the End of the World for the YA Book Prize shortlisting.

I started the story with a virus spreading across the world, giving everyone nose bleeds. Once the pandemic was over, doctors started to notice that no women were becoming pregnant – everyone had become infertile because of the virus.

As I’m writing this, the coronavirus pandemic is growing worse by the day. I could never have anticipated that the situation in The Quiet at the End of the World would really come true. It’s been an eerie experience, watching the news unveil through social media in the same way I wrote last year in the novel. I’m not sure I’m enjoying it. Hopefully the story provides some comfort to people who are self-isolating or have contracted the virus.

I think in times of crisis, art and media become more important than ever, and I’m happy to have written a novel that helps people cope. Especially because our real-world virus is definitely not going to stop people having babies, like in the book!

YA Book Prize shortlisting, a creative writing activity & book recs

I’m very excited that The Quiet at the End of the World has been shortlisted for the YA book prize!

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The list is so great this year, so I’m very flattered to be in such lovely company!

My free online novel, An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, is up to chapter 28 of 30, so it’s nearly finished. Here’s some reviews so far:

“Brilliant. Innovative, engaging and insightful. I hope it gets the huge audience it deserves.” – Sara Barnard

“absolutely addictive, creepy and exciting. at times i got so lost in the story i forgot that the characters aren’t real. would highly recommend this to anyone who loves reading fandom essays/treatises!” – Julie on Goodreads

“Lauren is a genius and this was the messy fandom hijinks love letter I never knew I needed.” – Charlie on Goodreads

“I loved it. It’s full of the things that make me love anything Lauren James writes: intrigue right from the start, sketchy characters, and plot twists galore. Throw in an unreliable narrator and a few conspiracy theories and you’ve got something that is impossible to not come back to week after week to see what happens next in the Gottie Writes saga. It’s an exploration of toxic fan culture, the power of the web (and you shouldn’t believe everything you read) — oh, and there’s a murder mystery, too. How can you not be intrigued?!” – Charlotte on Goodreads

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I’m currently taking bookings for July and July for editorial critiques. If you’re working on a writing project during lockdown, you can get notes on the first draft or an extract. I’ve edited manuscripts for over fifty writers of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. https://laurenejames.co.uk/editorial-services/

I posted a free creative writing exercise for students who are stuck inside right now:

And for the rest of you, a fun game:


Some recent excellent reads – three novels and three novellas for everyone who (like me) is lacking attention span right now.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power – Wonderful creeping horror that gets worse and worse as the book goes on, with some really gruesome scenes. Richly drawn characters on a mutated island.

A Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland – A depressed travelling storyteller ends up in a fantasy version of Amsterdam, where he single-handedly encourages a tulip mania to start. But when the flower bulbs get diseased, things start to go badly wrong.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey* –  I read this in one day, totally immersed in the lives of these women. The mansion is so clearly drawn, with all these stuffed animals in each room. Haunting, romantic and intriguing.

And the novellas:

The Harwood Spellbook novella series by Stephanie Burgis* – This magical world is so carefully thought out, with a really interesting take on gender roles in society. I’m a sucker for historical recency magic books, and I’ve read most of the ones I have found – this is a highlight for me as one of the nicest.

Wayward Children novella series by Seanan McGuire* –  Diverse and witty, with unique and memorable characters. Each novella is wonderfully different, and they all feel like fun little excursions into this endless magical world.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho* – A fun novella about a group of bandits whose harmony is uprooted by the arrival of a new member, a chaotic and argumentative nun of the Order of the Pure Moon. She pesters the bandits and disturbs their carefully planned heists, and has a lot of fun along the way. Zen’s writing is so full of life and humour, and the romance here creeps up on you quietly, then hits you hard. Tet Sang is a wonderfully dry and interesting protagonist. I want a sequel!

*gifted by the publisher