Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Sue Bentley

Sue BentleySue Bentley has written over 70 books for children and adults. Her books have been published in many countries and in excess of 20 languages. Sue is best known for her successful Magic Kitten series, followed by Magic Puppy, Magic Pony and Magic Bunny, all published by Puffin.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

I usually have a rough idea of what will happen in any book as I do quite a lot of work before I begin writing; I like to create the world my characters inhabit in some detail. This is the same, whether it’s a contemporary or fantasy setting or a blending of both – which is something I really enjoy. I also do a loose chapter outline, which gives me a head start and stops me sending the plot up ‘blind alleys’. But as the characters begin to come to life for me and to interact with each other, events can change. Sometimes quite dramatically. If the changes add to the tension or enrich the storyline, then I’ll go with them. So I suppose what I’m saying is yes, I do have some idea how a book will end – but sometimes it can change and surprise me.

Do you base your characters on real people?

I don’t base my characters on any one person. I try to make them interesting and diverse. After all, I’m going to have to live with them for the length of the book. That doesn’t mean that I have to like them all, but I need to care about them and what happens to them. I think there is an element of every writer in each of their characters. It can be something quite subtle, or more developed like a love of music or horses. All kinds of things give one ideas for characters. An inquisitive mind is a prerequisite for any writer. Imagine seeing a necklace of unusual beads in a magazine or finding one at a car boot sale. Who made the necklace? Could those beads be carved from dragon bones? What kind of person wore it and what did it mean to them? Asking yourself questions like these help when building believable characters. Let your imagination run wild. It’s often the strangest off-the-wall things that develop into the best stories.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

I tend to do as mentioned in question one. But each book is different and has its own dynamic. I try not to be too rigid in my approach and do whatever feels right for me and the book. I have learned from experience that I need a framework to work to. But it’s good to remember that nothing is set in stone in those creative early days. So I aim to be flexible as long as I am true to my characters and I bear in mind to keep to the laws of cause and effect.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer? 

I have a large comfy study with a desktop pc. I type my books straight onto that. And I use the internet for research. But I take a physical note pad with me everywhere too. I enjoy the process of using pencil and paper and jot down ideas, outlines for scenes and scraps of dialogue as they occur to me; usually in cafes or my local library. Sometimes ideas flow better down through the hand and onto paper. I also keep spiral-bound work books in which I tuck magazine pages, scraps and oddments for fleshing-out my characters. I refer to them often.

How much do you edit your work?

I try to just get on and push forward with a book. But I’m a perfectionist, so find myself tinkering until I feel that a chapter is just right. Every word has to count. And everything superfluous must be cut out. Sometimes I’ll run it past a writer friend and she sees things I’ve missed! Then I’ll do more re-writing. It’s good to set work aside for a while and then go back to it with a fresh eye. I have developed a good sense of what’s working and what isn’t. This comes with time.

How much does your editor change what you write?

This depends on the book, the editor and me! As I’ve become more experienced there’s less that needs changing. But an editor will discuss this with me and we work together. She or he does not just change my work on a whim or without my permission. We both want the book to be the very best it can be. I’ve always felt that we’re on the same side.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Yes! But I do not panic – not anymore. I have learned that this is a temporary state and probably necessary for the creative process. I go for walks or do something that takes my mind off writing. And I read, read, read. Before very long I begin getting ideas, which I jot down. I ask myself – what if my character did this? Or what if this happened to him or her? Before I know it I’m back at work.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

All writing is difficult, except for a very few gifted people. The rest of us have to work at it and keep working at it. It can be hard to motivate oneself, but that is what you need to do. Ideally you need to write every day. 1,000 words or 4 pages – each day, is what a lot of writers produce – myself included, when I’m well into writing a book. But you might throw away half of that and re-write the rest before you begin again the following day. Also it can be difficult to find a publisher for your book or story when it’s finished. But with the internet there are now many new openings and opportunities for new writers.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

I love being able to produce a book from nothing but my own imagination. And I love being able to work from home and at my own pace. I adore everything about books and always have. The feel of them, the smell of them, the rustle of the pages, the way they look on my bookshelves. Books are an opening into a marvelous otherworld. When I’m in the process of writing I’m engaged in creating an exciting adventure of my own. There’s nothing better.

At which point did you become a writer?

I was a passionate reader first, having discovered my local library when I was about 6 or 8 years old. I fell in love with books and knew that I would be a writer one day. Books have been my life. I worked in my local library for many years. I did not go to university. I am a self-taught writer. I did not begin to write seriously until my own children stared school in my thirties. It took me a while to learn my craft. Longer than I expected, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Do you have input regarding the cover of your books?

Very little. The publishers has a design department. They are experts in producing covers that appeal to the particular market your books is aimed at. If I was unhappy with a cover, I would say so. But I have never had any problem so far.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

I would be an artist. I enjoy painting and collage and have a big portfolio of work, produced between writing projects. But I have been very busy writing over the past few years. Writing now takes up all my time and passion. You could say I’m painting with words.

What is your attitude to ebooks?

I can see how they are convenient for busy people on the move and they save weight in your case if you’re going on holiday. Many of my writer friends have a kindle or similar ereader. I haven’t got one. I still enjoy the physicality of books and carry one around with me everywhere and my study is lined with bookshelves. I think it’s more important than ever that children read for pleasure. If that’s via ebooks – then fine. In the end, it’s still the written word, whatever format it’s in. Reading is a gateway into the imagination. It fills your mind with freedom, colour and magic in a special way, unlike anything else.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I think that book showed me that you could create a world of magic that existed almost side by side with real life. Something about it gave me permission to explore my own imagination. I think I began to dream of being a writer – and to think I could maybe do it – after reading that book.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Keep an open mind. Believe you can do it. And begin to write. Just get the words down on the page, don’t worry if they’re not right. Read great fiction that inspires you and you’ll learn how the writers you love do it. If you don’t know where to begin, copy someone whose style you admire. Pretty soon your own original ‘voice’ will emerge and you’ll be on your way. And keep on writing. Good Luck!

Share this page: