This month I’m interviewing Sophia Bennett, who is a regular on Girls Heart Books, and writes inspiring, funny, heart-warming books about girls who are fashion designers, girls who want to be pop stars, girls who are spies – but all of whom find that the challenges they meet bring out a strength and courage they didn’t know they had. Her newest book, Love Song, is out this month. It’s a romance about a girl who’s a reluctant assistant to a diva, and a hot boy band, and according to Pop it’s “like a chart-topping hit: fun, thrilling, and totally addictive”… So what are Sophia’s writing secrets?
Did you write a lot as a child, or did you come to writing later?
My first book, illustrated by the author, was called Harry The Horse, and I wrote it when I was six. My mother still has it in the attic at home. I’ve written pretty much ever since, but didn’t dare try and be a published writer until I was in my thirties – and then it took another ten years until it finally happened.
Where do you write? Can you write anywhere or do you have a special writing place and it has to be exactly that desk, those pens, that kind of notebook?
I write in my shed, if it’s warm, in bed (fully dressed), if it’s cold, in local cafes and libraries if I need some outside inspiration, and alone in the sitting room in the middle of the night if I need absolute peace and quiet. Some of my best scenes have been written that way.
I always need a cup of tea or coffee beside me, some almonds or dark chocolate to snack on, and my favourite yellow notebook to hand. I usually write straight onto my laptop, but if inspiration strikes while I’m in the bath or in bed, I write on scrappy bits of paper and save them for later. Full disclosure: I tend to keep these, just in case I ever manage to write a classic and PhD students start trawling through my papers – as I did for an author called Italo Svevo when I was doing a degree about him. No sign of them yet …
Do you use a lot of adjectives or adverbs in your writing or are you someone that likes very simple prose?
I believe that adjectives and adverbs are magical creatures, like unicorns, and should be used sparingly. Use five amazing extraordinary incredible wonderful fantastic describing words, and their power is lost. Use one perfect analogy, and the sentence comes to life. It helps to have a wide vocabulary, so you know exactly which word to pick. But you don’t need to show it off all the time.
Sometimes, a house or a problem or a brother is simply ‘big’ – not enormous or gigantic. I try and follow the advice of Elmore Leonard: ‘if it looks like writing, I cut it out’. This especially applies to descriptions of speech. Often, my characters simply ‘say’ something. They don’t ‘cry out’, or ‘exclaim wonderingly’, or ‘declare’: what’s important is what’s being said. However, sometimes it’s important that they ‘mutter’, or ‘mumble’. Sometimes a house or a problem or a brother really is ‘gigantic’, or ‘minuscule’. So it depends on what I want the reader to imagine. I think about it a lot, and if I write simply – which I often do – it’s because I’ve chosen to let the images in the text speak for themselves, and not to let my writing get in the way.
(I fully recognise that this doesn’t work for school exams, though. If you’re being tested for your wide vocabulary, chuck it all in, as long as it’s appropriate. However, if you’re writing for a reader, not an examiner, please unlearn everything you were taught in school and learn the art of limpid simplicity too.
Do you have any tips for how to invent fresh and original similes or metaphors?
Be up to date! Look at the world around you. I write contemporary fiction and I remember having to write about an embarrassed girl blushing, and struggling for ages to find an image that didn’t seem Victorian. In the end, I made her feel ‘like a glow-stick’. A lot of similes and metaphors come from the world of texting and social media now. I find my kids are very witty and imaginative in the imagery they use without even thinking about it.
Can you give an example of one of your characters you really liked writing? Why were they fun to write?
My favourite character to write was probably Nonie, the narrator of Threads, who has a strong, sassy voice and a permanently upbeat attitude. She’s quirky, kind and helpful to her friends, even when they bicker, and it was always fun to be her. However, I’ve discovered that I love writing baddies too. Sigrid Santorini, the evil diva from Threads, appears again in my new book, Love Song. What I enjoy most about Sigrid is that she genuinely doesn’t know she’s evil: she thinks she’s all kittens and rainbows and everybody loves her. I loved writing Tina di Gaggia from The Look as well. She has the most outrageous dress sense, access to vast amounts of money and the best designers, and no morals whatsoever. She’s fast-talking, visionary, persuasive and dangerous. Being her was tremendously enjoyable.
What’s a good tip for how to write characters who seem real?
Nobody’s all good, or all bad. Take Sigrid Santorini. In Love Song, she’s is engaged to a rock star and she’s horrible to her assistant, but she’s also terrified that some girl will come along and steal her famous boyfriend away from her. She never admits this openly, but her assistant occasionally notices her falter, before regaining her composure and putting a brave face on. Though she’s freakishly nasty sometimes, you can almost feel sorry for her.
Do you enjoy writing dialogue?
I do! It’s one of my favourite aspects of writing. Characters come to life, they do things you don’t expect, their feelings flow onto the page, and the whole writing process seems to move faster. Pitting two characters against each other and making them talk is one of the best ways of finding out what they’re really like.
What are your tips for developing a good ear for dialogue?
Listen for speech rhythms. Everyone is different. Some people tend to use short sentences, lots of verbs, minimal description. Others tend to be more verbose. Make sure each of your characters has a very distinctive way of talking – so that you could tell it was them even from a single line of dialogue. It comes from their obsessions, their attitude to life, certain favourite words and verbal tics they have, how emotional they are … I think a master at this is Frank Cotterell Boyce. Look at the brothers in Millions, one kindly and innocent, with a fascination with saints; the other knowing, manipulative, with an eye for the money. Even from a single line that either one of them is thinking, you’d know instantly it was him.
What’s the best tip you ever got on writing and is there another good one you’d like to pass on?
Neil Gaiman said ‘Finish things!’ The art of sticking with a manuscript until the end, working through the sticky middle and bringing it to a dramatic conclusion is so difficult, so satisfying, so important that I can’t emphasise it enough. John Green said ‘I always allow the first draft to suck’. That’s important too: if you try and make it perfect first time, you’ll never finish. Write and get it done. Then rewrite and make it brilliant. Then rewrite again and make it irresistible.
Brilliant! Thanks, Sophia – and good luck with the new book, it sounds amazing!
Next month, I’ll be interviewing the fabulous Chris d’Lacey, author of the wonderful The Fire Within and other marvellous dragon books. I’m sure he’ll have some really interesting and helpful things to say about writing, so do check it out!