Books·How I Wrote It

How #BookTok built buzz for Melissa Blair's debut fantasy novel A Broken Blade

The Ontario author and social media influencer spoke with CBC Books about writing her debut fantasy novel A Broken Blade and the power of social media communities.
A photo composite of author and book.
A Broken Blade is a fantasy novel by Melissa Blair. (Union Square & Co.)

Melissa Blair is an Anishinaabekwe of mixed ancestry who splits her time between Treaty 9 in Northern Ontario and Ottawa. 

Blair is a prolific presence on TikTok, where she is a part of the growing #BookTok community where she engages in discourse about her favourite kinds of books which include Indigenous and queer fiction, feminist literature and nonfiction.

And #BookTok is a big deal — credited with boosting book sales and movie adaptations, views of the TikTok hashtag have crossed the 70-billion mark.

Blair's debut book, the fantasy novel A Broken Blade, is set in a world of magical beings including elves, faes and halflings. It is the story of Keera, a mysterious halfing who is known in the kingdom of Faeland as the King's Blade, a dangerous spy and assassin. When a figure known as the Shadow threatens the peace of the land, Keera is forced to track them down.

A Broken Blade was a part of a unique social media mystery, created by Blair, to promote and get people excited about her book. She spoke with CBC Books about the power of the #BookTok community — and how A Broken Blade, the first book in The Halfing Saga series, came to be.

Why #BookTok rocks

"I think #BookTok is this amazing place where people who love books and stories in all forms get to connect to each other and talk about it in a really nerdy way.

"A lot of today's readers have this experience of being super excited by the stories they're reading, but not necessarily having friends in real life who are also bookish people or who want to talk about that exact book with them. #BookTok allows you to connect with a whole community or mini-fandom that could exist for any book out there. And if it doesn't already exist, you can start recruiting people by sharing your book and being passionate about it, and I'm reacting to it.

"What I love about #BookTok it is such a place for connection. There's some great discourse that is happening, at least the parts of #Booktok that I'm on. Diversifying people's reading, having greater accessibility to reading and the importance of things like content warnings are all part of this huge discourse. 

What I love about #BookTok is just like such a place for connection.

"All of that I was grateful for; it helped inform how I structured the book, but also how I put it out since I self-published it first.

"I think #BookTok has a lot of influence and a lot of great ideas, and I'm excited to see where it goes in the future for sure."

WATCH | How teens are engaging with #BookTok on CBC News:

From app to paperback: How #BookTok is getting more teens reading

4 months ago
Duration 1:00
The hashtag itself now has 71 billion views on TikTok, and bookstores are reaping the benefits.

Building a mystery

"When I wrote the book, I knew pretty early on that I had this idea for a game or scavenger hunt for how I was going to release it to #BookTok.

"I emailed a bunch of #BookTokkers — 25 people emailed me back —  and I sent those 25 people a box. It was all nicely wrapped up; inside the box was a physical copy of the self-published version of A Broken Blade.

"The book didn't have my name on it, it was, 'Written by Anonymous.' Also inside the box was a letter that explained the scavenger hunt and the fact that a #BookTokker wrote this book — if they used the hints that were in the box and also read the book, they would probably be able to piece together who wrote it. 

When I wrote the book, I knew pretty early on that I had this idea for a game, or a scavenger hunt for how I was going to release it.

"From there, most of the #BookTok community made videos about the book. They shared their hints and tried to decode the message. People started reading the book. They did livestreams about it. I also had an anonymous A Broken Blade TikTok account where I was joining livestreams, answering questions and trolling people… and it was a lot of fun! 

"Then after two weeks, people were able to figure out what the message said. The message was: 'This book was written by Melissa Blair, miigwech,' which is Anishinaabe for thank you.

"It was a really fun time!"

LISTEN | Melissa Blair on Ottawa Morning:

Local TikTok-er Melissa Blair says that the literary branch of the popular social media app has helped to build a tight-knit community. She joined in with her own reviews and recommendations for Indigenous books after noticing that the genre was lacking on the social media app.

Worldbuilding and storytelling

"Keera starts out the story with more agency than a lot of people in her position. She's very aware of that. It's part of what gives her a lot of guilt that she deals with through the story. She's aware that she can travel pretty freely, she can make decisions on her own. She has access to money that other halflings wouldn't have. 

"She starts coming into her full autonomy — and feeling like she can actually help people in the way she's always wanted to — when she starts connecting with other people from the Faeland where the elves and the Fae are allowed to live. It's from getting to know them and feeling like there's actually a hope for life after the king, if they were able to create that world, that she starts making decisions and feels comfortable doing so.

I informed a lot of the world on what happened to First Nations people.

"Creating the world involved a big board and random squiggles! For the physicality of places, I also tried to make it feel like a big continent in terms of travelling. That was helpful.

"In terms of plot lines, I wrote it out on index cards first, writing out all the major beats. Then I took a big bulletin board and kind of played around and rearranged the card. Once I got an outline that I felt comfortable with, I transferred it to the computer program Scrivener. Then I just wrote it all out the computer. 

"I informed a lot of the world on what happened to First Nations people. This is from my knowledge of First Nations history, being First Nations myself, but also working in First Nation spaces and Indigenous spaces. So I was very aware. It's all informed by bits and pieces that happened in Turtle Island and policy that was set here. 

"And that's something that'll be revealed as the books go on."

The need for representation

"Fantasy is a specific genre where how people cast or see characters in their head can vastly differ between readers. As an Indigenous person, I'm also glad I have the opportunity to write more Indigenous characters, because there wasn't very many for me growing up.

"I think it's hard to not feel that pressure, or be aware of a lack of representation, when you're writing, at least as an Indigenous person. But I would assume for all BIPOC people. You're writing a story that in some way speaks to your own personal experience and is informed by you that maybe the industry hasn't allowed it yet. 

As an Indigenous person, I'm also glad I have the opportunity to write more Indigenous characters, because there wasn't very many for me growing up.

"With this series, I was hyper aware of it because I was specifically trying to write a fun paranormal fantasy romance. But it also didn't shy away from the themes of colonization — I had it very much braided into the narrative.

"That's the importance of why we need people to write their own stories — people who have experienced these things, look like, feel like and live the lives like the characters they're writing in fantasy and other genres.

"Whether people are aware of it or not — or actively writing it that way or not — I think it lends to better representation all the way around.

"That's what I like to tell myself anyway!"

Melissa Blair's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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