This post forms part of the blog tour to help promote the forthcoming novel The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud.
Jonathan has kindly shared with us 5 tips for better writing. They’re so good, I’m tempted to stop what I’m doing and start writing a novel right now. Don’t forget to check out my full review of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne. The book really is excellent.
Jonathan Stroud’s 5 Writing Tips
Every writer may have more or less the same objective—to create an interesting and readable text—but each one approaches the job in their own unique way. This means that any tips or advice on writing can only be a rough guide, an overview of what works for this particular person. In fact, not even quite that, because every book is different too, and may need its own particular treatment, so even the experienced writer is in the position, at the start of any project, of not knowing whether the techniques that worked before will do so again. But all is not lost, because this slightly uncomfortable fact gives rise to the first of my five tips…
Tip 1. Uncertainty is your bedfellow, and you might as well embrace it.
There’s an inherent instability about the process of writing. You don’t really know if what you’re doing is going to work, and that uncertainty holds true pretty much till the last full stop. This fact could be (and often is) a source of anxiety, but actually, it might just as well make you skip about with excitement. Since everything is possible, this, therefore, includes many, many very good outcomes as well as bad. And don’t forget: even if the end result isn’t quite what you wanted, you’ve created something that didn’t exist before. And that’s worth celebrating.
Tip 2. Defy the void and select your starting point.
The blank page/computer screen is always off-putting, and its infinite emptiness at the start of a project is a direct challenge to you. Sadly, it can’t usually be filled up by something instantly comprehensive or complete, like the neat structure of a novel or a cool and workable chapter one. But don’t worry. All you need to get started is a general idea or theme, plus the beginnings of a scene.
Some of my books began in just this way:
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne:
Idea: British Western Scene: squabbling characters floating down a raft on the Thames.
The Screaming Staircase:
Idea: New-style Ghost Story Scene: two children armed with rapiers knock on door to tackle ghost.
The Amulet of Samarkand:
Idea: Fantasy with Demon as Hero. Scene: ancient djinni is summoned by an irritating kid magician.
You don’t really need anything more than this. Now just start writing. All you’re doing at this point is trying to entertain yourself.
Tip 3: Make like an oyster and build outwards from this start.
With luck, your bits of scribbling will excite you. And this gives you a “core”: something interesting to build upon. Now, without putting any pressure on yourself, you can have fun writing outwards from it, maybe extending the scene, or thinking of new ones, and meanwhile pondering how the rules of this story might work. At this point everything is fluid and the book might go anywhere. You’re simply creating fragments of different sizes that might eventually join up, but right now are floating around, shimmering with potential. (NB. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily any good. In my projects, I’ll often end up with 100 pages of this kind of material, some of which will be crucial building blocks of the novel, others of which are destined for the bin.) Among many other things, what you’re doing at this point is hunting for your voice, looking for your characters’ voices, searching for what the story’s really about.
Tip 4: Sketch a preliminary road-map, but don’t believe everything it says.
Sooner or later, though, you’ll get twitchy, and think about creating a synopsis. This is when the orderly, rational side of your brain, which has been sitting around impatiently drumming its fingers while you played around with fragments, gets into the driving seat and tries to make sense of the mess. It’s time to draw up a plan that shows with some degree of plausibility how the structure of the book might look. How does the story begin? Where is it headed? What’s the sequence of events, their pace, and rhythm? This kind of creativity has its own fun attached—it’s a puzzle waiting to be unlocked, and you don’t always solve it the first time. In fact, it’s important to realize that the structure is just as volatile and changeable as all the actual “writing”—I usually work my way through several versions of my chapter plan over the course of a project—but the very act of making it gives you confidence and the strength to continue. A synopsis takes the book to a different level of reality—suddenly you see its shadow projected before you on the wall.
Tip 5: Piece together a first draft, accepting that it’s flawed.
Around now, with the aid of the synopsis, I begin to feel the urge to work chronologically, starting back at the beginning, and working through the book, incorporating the various existing fragments into their correct places. This involves a lot of rewriting, and there’s plenty of satisfaction in seeing these stray pieces, so long separate, becoming molded into the whole. Little by little now, you inch towards creating a rough first draft. The important thing here (and the joy of writing generally) is to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter if the book doesn’t yet work. That’s not a problem at all—everything can be tweaked, adjusted, excised, or rewritten as many more times as you like. And all the hard work that you’ve done already will contribute to making these later changes feel, if not exactly easier, then much sharper and more precise. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting to the end of the first draft and knowing that the book now definitely exists, even if it’s still flawed and incomplete. It’s time to sit back and take a well-earned break from your labors. Like I said at the beginning, you’re making something out of nothing, and your achievement is already remarkable.
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is out in the UK now. US readers can order a UK copy or wait until October of the US edition to be released.