Saturday 15 June 2024

The Writing of Varjak Paw

This piece was written for the British Library's Discovering Children's Books website, and will hopefully be viewable there again soon.  

I started writing Varjak Paw in January 1997, inspired by watching my own cat's adventures as he went out into the world for the first time.  Every time I begin a new book, I make a deal with myself: no-one else will ever see my first draft.  That way, I can be completely unselfconscious, safe in the knowledge that however bad it is, only I will ever know!  This is a vital part of my working process, so the earliest document I can share is the 2nd draft of Varjak Paw.  

2nd Draft

This is the first page of the 2nd draft, written in February 1997.  I always write by hand on early drafts, as I find it flows better that way.  At this stage, I imagined an opening in which Varjak climbs a curtain at home.  The only thing that remains from this scene in the published book is a reference on page 35: "even Varjak, who could sometimes make it half way up a curtain before Mother or Father shouted him down."  But some of the description found its way into the scene of Varjak climbing the wall in Chapter Five, which is the pivotal scene of the book.  So although this opening was deleted, the work wasn't wasted; it was all part of the process.  

8th Draft

As other parts of the book developed, the opening remained focused on curtain-climbing until the 8th draft, which was the first one I sent to publishers and agents.  This is the first page of that draft, which dates from late 1997.  By this stage, I was writing the book on my computer as a Word document, which I would then read through and edit on printouts.  

9th Draft

Varjak Paw was rejected by every publisher and agent I sent it to.  However, an agent gave me some very useful feedback on the 8th draft, as a result of which I rethought it, and went back to hand-writing the 9th draft as if it was the first draft all over again, to free myself to reconceive it.  This is the first page of that draft, written in March 1998.  It's a total mess, but this is the first version where you can glimpse the outlines of the opening as it ended up in the published book, so it was a crucial draft.

11th Draft

After three drafts of rebuilding the book from the ground up, I felt confident enough to send it out again.  This is the first page of the 11th draft, which dates from Autumn 1998.  It was another crucial one, because this was the draft that was read by my agent, Celia Catchpole, who took it on and showed it to my publisher and editor, David Fickling.  It was on the basis of this draft that he offered to publish Varjak Paw, while making it clear that he thought it could be improved.  Of course, he was right!

15th Draft

This is the opening of the 15th draft, written in July 2001.  David Fickling believes that you should keep working on a book for as long as it takes to make it as good as you possibly can.  So we had worked very hard on it, and it was getting closer to its final shape, now opening with Varjak's desire to go Outside.  But big things were still changing; it's interesting to see my note to myself to change 'Mum' and 'Dad' to 'Mother' and 'Father', establishing the tone of Varjak's life at home.  

16th Draft

Finally, in October 2001, I wrote a draft that opened with the Elder Paw telling a Jalal tale, as the published book does.  It had been a long, hard process of trial and error, and many things would still change on the 17th draft – but when I wrote the words "The Elder Paw was telling a story," I think I knew it would be hard for me to find a better opening for my book.  


I continued to work on Varjak Paw until October 2002, bringing the total time I spent on it to almost 5 years.  The 17th draft was the last official draft, but it continued to change even after that, as it went through galleys and proofs, and as Dave McKean worked his magic on the text, transforming my Word document into the beautifully-illustrated book that was finally published in January 2003.  Everything had changed, yet the spark at the heart of the book remained the same: the adventures of a cat going out into the world for the first time.

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