As part of the Lockwood and Co blog tour, I am pleased to welcome Jonathan Stroud onto the blog to let us into all his writing secrets!
1. The first book in your new series, Lockwood and Co., is about to be published. How do you feel bringing a new series to the world after so much success with the Bartimaeus Trilogy?
There’s always a feeling of special excitement at the start of something new. The prospect of a new series offers so much potential – you feel as if it might accomplish anything. I already know roughly the direction the story is headed, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there. It’s like seeing a distant hill across a vast blue evening plain: the roads below and the lands you’ll cross to get to it are invisible, which makes the journey all the more enticing. I hope my readers will agree! In some ways Lockwood is quite different from my Bartimaeus books, but I think fans will find a lot to enjoy here too.
2. Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books, is highly recommending your book to all of his readers. When you found out, what was your reaction?
Rick is a fine writer and a lovely guy, and I hold his opinion in the highest regard, so I was thrilled. In fact I danced a hornpipe of joy in the privacy of my own home.
3. Can you tell my readers a little bit about Lockwood and Co?
The story’s set in London, in an alternative present-day. It’s very similar to our own world, except that for 50 years there’s been an escalating epidemic of ghosts across the British Isles. This epidemic is euphemistically known as the Problem. Adults can’t detect ghosts easily at all, which is unfortunate because some of the spectres are aggressive and hungry for human contact. Ghost-touch is usually fatal. A large number of psychic agencies have sprung up to deal with the epidemic, all relying on the talents of children. Lockwood & Co. is the smallest agency in the capital, with precisely three agents: the swashbuckling Anthony Lockwood, the sarcastic but dependable George Cubbins, and Lucy Carlyle, the newest member, who tells the story. When a job goes horribly wrong, they have a single chance of redemption, which unfortunately involves visiting the most haunted house in England, and trying to survive.
4. Having listened to you talk about your book at the Random House Blogger Brunch, I get the impression you spend a great deal of time on the detailed background of your characters. How much of this appears in the book or do you keep it back for your own knowledge of the characters?
Some things I put in straight away. There’s a lot about Lucy’s background in the first book, for instance, but I keep back almost everything about Lockwood and George. A few hints are always good to throw in, of course, but I like withholding things too. Mainly this is down to plot reasons; it’s good to have surprises in store. But it’s also because I’m still uncovering information about my characters myself. As you write, you discover things – it’s like being in conversation with someone, and slowly getting to know them well.
5. I thought the cover of The Screaming Staircase was stunning. What are your thoughts on it? Does it capture the tone of the book for you?
I’m glad you love it – I think it’s absolutely superb. It conjures precisely the feel I was after – the old-fashioned adventure, the frightening spookiness, the richness of the world. And it will be noticed across a crowded bookstore, which is always an important bonus!
6. You’ve written for a couple of different age ranges, which age group do you prefer writing for? Is it something you think about when you embark on a new book?
To be honest, I tend to always write with a dual perspective. It’s always something that entertains me as an adult, and which would ALSO have thrilled me as a kid. I only ever have a rough age in mind. The end result develops from the story and how it needs to be told.
7. Do you find that the writing gets easier or harder with each book you publish?
A great question! In some ways things are getting easier, in that I’m getting (I hope) better at the basic mechanics of writing. But the flipside is that I’m also more and more conscious of what I’m doing, and this sometimes slows me down. I used to write very freely and instinctively… less so now.
8. What usually comes first – the character, the plot or the idea when starting a new project?
Usually things begin with a scene – a germ of a set-up. So Lockwood began with two young ghost-hunters walking up to a front door. I didn’t know who they were or anything about them. It came alive through their conversation – their characters began to take shape, and sparked off each other. After that (the final, most cumbrous thing) the plot begins to develop.
9. Do you write daily and if so do you have a word count that you aim for each day when writing your first draft?
Yes. I write daily, and when in the middle of a book aim for about 25 pages per week (i.e. 5 pages per day; about 2000 words). I rarely, if ever, attain this total, but if I get close (20 pages, for example), I’ll feel content.
10. Do you edit your first draft as you write it or wait until you have finished it?
It depends. Some scenes are reworked several times. Others are tried and discarded altogether. Some seem great when I first write them, so they survive untouched until the draft is complete. Then I’ll read through and begin altering, where necessary, in more or less chronological order.
11. When you’re touring with your books, how do you find time to write?
I don’t. On my first Amulet tour, I carried my (whopping) manuscript of The Golem’s Eye around the USA for three weeks. It nearly broke my back. I wrote nothing. I since discovered that if you’re doing 2-3 events per day and travelling as well, there’s not much energy left to write. But it does give you good thinking space, and you get to see new places and people to restock your mind vaults, so it’s not redundant time.
12. What Young Adult book have you read and loved recently?
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Wonderfully quirky, funny and astute. I did a panel event with him in New York, and he was all those things in person too.
13. Is there any non-fiction writing books that you would recommend?
You mean books about writing? I used to find the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook, and Writer’s Handbook invaluable. I also love essays by writers, which give you insights into style, subject matter and the preoccupations of your fellow scribblers. At random from a long list I’d recommend George Orwell’s Essays and Martin Amis’s Visiting Mrs Nabokov and War Against Cliché.
14. Do you have any advice for aspiring and unpublished authors?
My main advice would be: keep enjoying it. If you’re entertained by what you write, there’s a high chance that your readers will like it too. Experiment with style and format, and don’t self-edit too destructively – by which I mean, keep moving and don’t obsess over the same scenes or chapters too long. Find someone you trust to give you clear-headed, unbiased advice. And don’t be distressed if your pieces are rejected. You’re not alone. Every single published writer has been in the same position. Good things will eventually find their way through.
Lockwood and Co: The Screaming Staircase is published on the 29th of August by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.
To find out more about Jonathan Stroud: