Sue Bentley recently joined us at one of our Lake District retreats and this offered us a great opportunity to catch up with her to chat about her writing.
We asked Sue a few questions…
Do you work to a specific writing routine?
Yes and No. When I’m immersed in a novel, I like to get up as early as possible – 6.am in Summer – 7.30am in Winter. I make a pot of tea and go straight to my study in slippers and fluffy dressing gown. My characters will be speaking to me and I want to get into the world of my book before the day intrudes. If the writing goes well I might just keep on going and not even get dressed.
If the book’s not behaving or I need a break from sitting at my desktop, I’ll walk to a favourite café and sit there for hours reading, researching and making notes. Or I might visit my local Records Office to look at early maps, street plans or read first-hand account of people’s experiences in local industries. I spend time browsing in book shops and public libraries too. All of it is part of my writing life.
Your career has seen you write across different genres. What has been your favourite and why?
I didn’t plan to write in different genres and actually began writing for adults. I’ve followed a policy of saying ‘Yes’ to any writing opportunity and then going home and working out how to do it. So when I was offered the chance to write some titles for an already published series for children (the Animal Ark series) I did just that. It turned out to be a challenging experience. But I learned so much from writing the 7 titles – how to write to length, how not to waste words, how to write books to a tight deadline. That led on to writing for the Rainbow Magic series, amongst other things, and ultimately to my own Magic Kitten, Puppy, Ponies and Bunny series.
I’m now back to writing novels for Young Adults and Adults. I’m particularly fond of my dark and gritty fairy tale book, ‘We Other’. But I’m also proud of my latest novel ‘Second Skin’ about people who can turn into dragons. It’s also very dark at times, even shocking. As for my favourite genre – that’s difficult.
I am very fond of my Magic Kitten books and get letters from young readers all around the world. I suppose the genre in which I am writing working holds that special place in my heart. Afterwards it will fade, as another idea takes root. At present, I’m writing a Gothic mystery for Adults entitled ‘Frozen Charlotte.’ Which was inspired by the Northamptonshire Shoe Trade.
What makes characters in stories really believable?
The writer has to believe in their characters. Building a complex back story for them is essential. You might not use all the information, but you need to know what they love, what they hate, what makes them individual. I do a lot of work on a character before I begin writing. Once I feel I know their voice, they become real for me and subsequently for my readers.
Where do you find your stories?
Everywhere and anywhere. Reading books and magazines often prompts ideas for a character trait, or a particular real-life situation can become the germ of a new plot. The same with films. Also people tell me things. They love to talk about their lives and those of their friends. Truth really can be stranger than fiction!
How do you go about writing great dialogue?
Listening to people speak is really interesting. I’m fascinated by scraps of conversation I hear in cafes or on the street. Dialogue in novels is not always true to life as normal speech is spattered with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and repetitions. The art is to make it sound authentic. I re-write dialogue, and much else, over and over again until the book’s 99% right. That’s before I consider it a first draft and show it to anyone, including my agent and publisher. It helps once you know your characters well. It should be obvious to your readers which of them is speaking just from the rhythm and peculiarities of each one.
How long does a first draft novel normally take you?
How long’s a piece of string? It varies with different books. It’s fabulous when you dive in full of enthusiasm and the words seem to pour out of their own accord. This is usually at the beginning of a book. At some point everything slows down and each word is like pulling teeth. It can be a struggle to keep going, and it never gets easier. But I know from experience that when the book’s published no one will be able to tell which bits I wrote fast and which bits I agonised over and re-wrote countless times.
What single piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Writers, write. If you have a burning desire to write, just begin. Don’t wait for that magic ‘right time’. If you seriously want to write you’ll do it, even if you have three kids, a job, and countless animals to look after. Anyone can find a half hour a week. Write in a notebook while sitting in the bathroom, tap out ideas on your phone while on the bus or tube. The thing is to write. It need not be very good, but get those ideas down. Just by writing you get better. And don’t tell people about your work. Keep it inside or you may lose the impetus to write it down.
(c) Sue Bentley.
Please visit Sue’s site at www.suebentley.co.uk