I’m very excited to be a part of the Blog Tour The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud. And I’m very lucky that Jonathan has written a blog post about his experience writing this book.
Jonathan talks about the writing process, drafting, editing and much more and it’s incredibly interesting to read. There’s some great advice here for writers so this is a great read. So, lets go.
Jonathan Stroud Writing The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne
Hello. I’ve recently finished writing my novel, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne. When I get to the end of a big project like this, my office is always festooned with papery debris that’s built up over weeks and months as I wrestled the book into shape. Sooner or later, I’ll summon the energy to roll up my sleeves, fortify myself with a stiff drink, and get rid of a lot of it, before filing the key bits away in the loft. But I haven’t done this for Outlaws yet, which gives me the chance to look here at some of the stages the book went through over the last three years…
1. First Notes
I began thinking about the new project at the start of 2018, a few months after my last Lockwood & Co. book had been published. I knew straight away that I wanted it to be set in a post-apocalyptic future Britain, where events had made the country much more dangerous and strange. I also knew that it would feature a river journey along the Thames, probably with a raft involved, and that there would be bit of a Western vibe. These elements survived to the final book, but other things were very different – for example, at the outset the main character was a middle-aged man, who met a couple of children on a wrecked bus in the wilderness. These pages of early notes show a diagram of one of the fortified ‘Surviving Towns’ and also a sketch of the crashed bus – both these ideas are still in the finished book, three years later.
2. Early Structure
After a couple of months making notes and writing fragmentary scenes, I tried figuring out the book’s structure – you can see the attempt here. It’s always good to do this, because it helps throw up problems, of which, in this case, there were many. My main issue was that the main character (here known as Bob Choi) didn’t work, but I didn’t realise this yet. He rescues a couple of children from a bus (chapter 3), takes them across the wilds, discovers they are being pursued by bad guys (ch 5), and escapes with them along the Thames (ch 7). All these elements make it (in a different form) into the eventual book, as does the climax in some half-submerged ruins in the London Lagoon (ch 17). But Bob Choi would have to go.
3. Still Struggling
Incredibly, though, he was still there eight months later, at the end of 2018, when these particular notes were done. I was having real problems making the book work, and you can see me here still trying to figure out the structure and rhythm of the book – how the plot would string together in a kind of necklace of ‘crises’ and ‘phases’. I was missing the point: the dynamic between my characters wasn’t working, and that’s the engine that ultimately powers a successful book. It took till early 2019, a full year after starting, that Bob Choi was booted out, and Scarlett McCain took over his role as the dangerous but reluctantly compassionate hero. At least in these notes here, I was having fun sketching toothed birds and giant mud-rats, and was profitably employed thinking about the accelerated evolution of the fauna of my future England.
4. Map Sketch
One thing that never altered, through the whole two and a half years of writing, was the idea of the river journey, from source to outflow, down the Thames. Towards the end of the project, when I knew pretty well how the story worked, I drew up this sketch map of the river and the London Lagoon (our London has vanished within it). It mostly follows the real course of the Thames, with a few tweaks and changes, such as the kingdoms (Mercia, Wessex, Anglia) that it passes through, the absence of most towns, and the promotion of a few real towns and villages to a more important status. I always like drawing maps: it has the same effect for me as it does for the reader, and helps anchor my characters’ travels securely in the mind.
5. Note Files
By the time a book like this is finished, I usually have a couple of ring-binders like these, filled with all the notes I made at every stage of the composition. I file them chronologically, so I can look back and check stuff, and also roll my eyes at all the false starts and appalling cul-de-sacs I explored along the way.
I’ve lost track of how many drafts The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne went through, but you can see from this pile that it’s quite a lot. Early on there were two or three ‘unfinished’ drafts, where I got to a certain point, realised that it wasn’t working, and stopped to recalibrate, before starting again. Certain scenes that worked, however, were transposed almost word-for-word between them. There were probably at least four complete drafts after that, inching ever closer to the desired result. At each point I thought I’d cracked it, only for a re-read to show me that I needed to try again. Phew, just looking at this pile makes me feel a bit tired! Forget raft trips down the Thames – writing a novel is an epic journey in itself, but it’s all worth it in the end.
How amazing was that? Thank you so much Jonathan for doing this and for all the great information.
I was also lucky enough to read an early copy of this book, and it’s fantastic. It’s a brilliant start to a new teen series, its action packed, its got great world building and was full of intrigue. My favourite thing were the characters. They were brilliant. I enjoyed Scarlett & Browne so much. They made me laugh out loud, and I loved the connection Jonathan creates between them. I really believed their friendship. Now I’ve got to wait for book two, that I am definitely looking forward to.
Thanks again to Jonathan and make sure you check out all the other bloggers taking part. You can even read the first two chapters of this book. The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne is out April 1st.
Until the next review