Tuesday 14 July 2020

Writing The Outlaw Varjak Paw

I never set out to write more than one Varjak Paw book.  I wrote the story of a powerless kitten who gradually comes into his power, and grows into a cat.  For me, that story ends at the end of Varjak Paw.

But writing Varjak Paw, I'd found all sorts of questions I didn't have room to answer in one book.  Take Sally Bones, boss of the meanest gang of streets cats in the city.  Varjak had made a terrible enemy there.  What was going to happen when he went back to the city and met her again?  It was clear that I was going to have to write a sequel to find out.

I have to be honest: I don't usually like sequels.  So often, they feel like a letdown, and as a reader, there's nothing I hate more than a sequel that lets me down.  There was no way I could let that happen with Varjak.  I promised myself there would only be a sequel if it was as good as the first one, if not better.  It needed to be a great book in its own right; a story that could stand alone, and take us somewhere new.

I didn't think it would be that hard.  I already had characters, situations, a world… all I had to do was find a new story.  How hard could it be?  Well, I can honestly say that writing The Outlaw Varjak Paw is the hardest thing I've ever done!  Here was my problem.  In the first book, a powerless kitten becomes a powerful cat.  That's an interesting story.  But a character who has power is just not that interesting.  He can fight his way out of any corner, so where's the story? 

I tried all kinds of things.  I explored the city, and discovered whole new areas I'd never known about.  I met some amazing new characters, like the Scratch Sisters, the Orrible Twins, and of course Buster and Bomballooloo, who I think have the best names of all my characters!  I found out a lot more about the stories of characters like Cludge.  But Varjak's own story just wasn't right.  Nothing felt as interesting as what had happened to him in the first book. 

Around draft eight, I remember losing hope.  I felt sure I'd never complete this book.  I thought I was finished as a writer.  The first book was a lucky accident, but now the truth was clear: I would never write anything else again.  I really, really wanted to give up.  These were very dark times indeed. 

But somehow… those feelings gave me the key to the story.  What if Varjak felt exactly like I did?  What if he believed he'd lost his power, and was finished as a fighter?  How would he survive without the skills he'd learned in the first book?  What would he fall back on then?  The moment I had that thought, the book came to life.  The story came into focus, sharp and clear.  It didn't take long from there to finish it.

The Outlaw Varjak Paw went on to win the Blue Peter Book Of The Year Award – one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.  It was recently picked as one of the ten best books ever to win that award, on a list with the likes of Harry Potter, Matilda and The Gruffalo.  So all the hard work was worth it in the end.  

But the experience taught me a very big lesson.  The story is the most important thing.  You should only write a book if you know what the story is, because without that to guide you, you'll get as lost and confused as I did.  So to answer a question I'm often asked: yes, there will be a third Varjak Paw book one day – but only when I'm absolutely sure what the story is! 


Amanda drew said...

Wow that's so interesting... Just so similar as our daughter. She got lost in the book and didn't want to carry on until something clicked and then it came alive... Have you received the book yet... Varjak Paw Returns we await your comments. We've had an email from Ross Young as he saw our tweet to you and requested a copy of the book hope you don't mind. I'm trying to get our daughter known out there as a child author. How can we help her more...??

SF Said said...

Thank you so much, Amanda! I haven't yet received it, but I'm sure my publishers will send it on as soon as they do.

In the meantime, here are some writing tips that your daughter might find helpful:

The only other thing I'd suggest in terms of helping her is simply to encourage her to read as widely as possible. All writers are readers, so the more she can read, the better! Here's a list of books I put together for BookTrust- she might find some new favourites on it:

With best wishes,
SF Said

Anonymous said...

I have spent many long hours checking out books by children's author after children's author, book after book, in an increasingly desperate search for something that my grandson will like. I have been through Book Trust lists, lists provided by an assortment of parents, publishers' lists, and there just isn't that much that is suitable or to his taste. Finally I found two authors whose work he really likes. One is SF Said. Last night my grandson read 20 chapters of Varjak Paw, and said it is his most favourite book ever. He has asked for the second book, so I have ordered The Outlaw Varjak Paw. But then what? We need to keep up a flow of books he really likes, otherwise he lapses into an anti-reading stance! Are you sure there isn't another another story about these characters just poised to emerge?

SF Said said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, and for working so hard to inspire your grandson to read! I'm so glad he has enjoyed Varjak Paw - please say hello to him for me, and tell him that I hope he enjoys The Outlaw Varjak Paw as much as the first one, or even more!

I am planning to write a third book about Varjak one day, but not for a while yet - you can read all about it in this blog post if you like.

If he has enjoyed Varjak's adventures, he might well enjoy the other book I've written so far, Phoenix. It's not about the same characters, but it comes from very much the same place! I would just say that it's a little bit 'older' as a book - my publishers recommend it for ages 9 and up. Every reader is different, though, so perhaps it would be best for you to have a look at it yourself and see if you think it's suitable.

Thanks again, and best wishes,
SF Said

Celeste Madden said...

The Varjak Paw books made up such a significant part of my life growing up; we read it when I was in Year 4 and it’s weirdly comforting to see you’re still involved and talking about the book with readers, a lot of the authors of books that meant a lot to me then have seemed to distance themselves from them. Thank you so much for creating such an amazing, immersive world :))

SF Said said...

Dear Celeste,

Thank you so much for your message; that's an amazing thing for an author to hear! I have to admit, I don't find writing easy - Varjak Paw took me 5 years to get right - but all the hard work feels worthwhile when I hear a thing like that, so it's a pleasure for me to talk with readers like yourself.

Thanks again, and keep the Way alive!