Saturday, 18 July 2009

Interview with the 2009 Times Chicken House competition winner: SOPHIA BENNETT

SOPHIA BENNETT won the 2009 Times Chicken House Children's Fiction competition with her winning entry THREADS.


Nonie’s passion is fashion. Humanitarian Edie wants to save the world. And budding actress Jenny has just landed a small part in a Hollywood blockbuster. But when these three friends meet a young African refugee girl called Crow, sketching a dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum, they get the chance to pool their talents and do something truly wonderful, proving that fashion fairy tales really can happen.

Some of the praise for Threads -

'A treat... elegant and funny and has real narrative verve.'  
David Almond, author.

'Great fun. It goes at a cracking pace and girls will love it.'  
Jacqueline Wilson, author.

'From the moment Nonie and her friend Jennyspot Crow sketching a dress wearing dungarees and a pair of pink fairy wings're enchanted.'  
Amanda Craig, The Times.


Hi Sophia and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Was THREADS your first attempt at writing a children’s book or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

I hadn’t written for children before, but I’d tried three other books, which were detective stories for adults. Those got a bit of interest from agents and publishers, but no actual deal. I’d always wanted to write children’s books, but didn’t feel I was ready to until I had some children in my life whom I could read to regularly and learn from, so I knew I was reflecting their lives and interests properly. I didn’t just want to rewrite what I’d read as a child.
I’ve always enjoyed children’s films and watched them get sharper and faster with every season. I knew it would be the same with books. Eventually I had my sons and stepdaughters and felt brave enough to try.

What inspired you to write THREADS and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

The idea for Threads came to me suddenly when I was doing the laundry one day, and stuck in my head. That was about five years ago. For a long time, it was just a mystery story about a girl who secretly designed clothes – which is something I used to do when I was about ten and have been fascinated by ever since. I’m still as bad at it now as I was then, though, sadly.
Of those five years, three and a bit were spent thinking about the story while I had a proper job. Five months were spent writing and rewriting. I finished the book in early October 2008, just in time for the Times/Chicken House Competition, which I’d vaguely remembered about from the year before. I sent it off and carried on with rewrites.
I was completely shocked when I was shortlisted, and more so when I actually won. I’m not normally a winner of things.
I found out about the win in late February (about nine months after I started writing Threads) and the book will be out in September – just under a year after I finished it. It feels super-fast. I was convinced that a massive amount of editing would be required but, amazingly, there wasn’t much.

You mentioned that you’re not sure what you did differently this time, what made THREADS so special. Having learnt a bit about you, do you think it’s because your love of fashion helped bring the story to life, imbued it with that extra sparkle because your enthusiasm shone through?

To be honest, no! My detective stories were also about subjects I’m passionate about – ballet and the art world. I think the difference was partly the result of my biggest challenge – somehow melding African refugee issues with high fashion. It’s the Ugandan side of the story that gives it its heart. Without it, it would just be another fluffy book about frocks. Well, I’d have tried to make it more than that, but I’m not sure I’d have succeeded! Plus, it made it a much more interesting book to write.
Also, I was more rigorous as a writer this time. I rewrote a lot. I threw a lot away. I was much more careful about plotting. I basically just tried to apply my craft more and be less self-indulgent. Very boring, but very worth it in the end.
Malcolm Gladwell (whose ‘The Tipping Point’ is one of my most favourite non-fiction books) has recently written ‘Outliers’, in which he suggests that to be stand-out successful, you need to put in the hours. About 100,000, he estimates – bless him. He might be overstating the case, but I do believe that hard work, dedication, passion, repetition – it all helps.
If anyone cares to look, they’ll see that when my characters are successful, it’s because they’ve worked their socks off for years. If they get unearned success because they’re just lucky, it tends to rear up and bite them in the bottom. Work, children, work!

Alongside the glitter and sparkle of fashion and Hollywood, you tackle a serious issue involving war affected children in Uganda. What came first? Did you want to develop your story around this issue or did it come later?

My story started with fashion design. Then, as I told and retold it to myself, it began to incorporate ideas about hard-earned fame versus cheap celebrity. Then I found out about the Ugandan night walkers and I really wanted to write about them too. But I had no idea how to meld their story with my fashion/celeb thing. The breakthrough was when Nonie, my narrator, started telling the story in her voice. That made all the difference. That was version 17, of 34. It wasn’t seamless!

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I’ve always wanted to write for children. I wanted to be Noel Streatfield before I wanted to be anybody. Well, possibly after I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast and an air hostess, but I was only about six then and that doesn’t count. I adored Ballet Shoes, White Boots and Ballet Shoes for Anna. I’ve loved reading in the genre ever since.
My current favourite is Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. And yes, I found the Harry Potter books inspiring, both as an author and as a reader.

You mention that you've changed genre since you first started writing? Do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?

This one’s going well so far! I love doing it and it seems to suit my natural style. Whatever I sit down to write, it comes out funny (well, trying to be), expressive of my inner teenager and full of contemporary cultural references. My letters to my bank manager are rubbish.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I’ve been planning to be a writer since I was nine or ten. I studied literature at university, but I always knew that the only way to write is to write. Despite this, I chose to do a PhD in modern literature rather than a creative writing course. I was still too scared to go for it. Then I chickened out and got a proper job as a management consultant for three years. From then on, I alternated between working and writing.
I did a screenwriting course, which, it turns out, has helped a lot. It’s made me much stricter and more ambitious with my plots and characters. But mostly it’s just sheer practice and reading and thinking about it obsessively.

Having tried writing for adults, is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?

One day I’d like to have another go at those detective stories and get them right. But if I only ever write for children, I will be a supremely happy person. Deeply, seriously happy.

Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?

Nope. Not in the slightest. The only difference is that before, I was desperate for a sympathetic editor whom I could discuss problems and ideas with. Now that I actually have one, I’m desperate to solve everything by myself. She’s really good, and I don’t want to embarrass myself by giving her something that isn’t polished. (However, that’s what I’m about to do with the draft of book 2. Gulp.)

Do you have an agent? Would you recommend having one and, if so, why?

Yes, I do now. Going through my first contract only proved to me how little I know about the publishing business. I really missed having a sounding board to tell me what was sensible, even though I was negotiating with Barry Cunningham, who is my hero (and whom I would have given the book to for free, in gobsmacked amazement at getting published at all, but it’s too late now – hah!).
If you have a deal, years of publishing experience, a keen legal brain and the self-confidence of Simon Cowell, I’d say just go for it. But if you appreciate a bit of industry knowledge and support, an agent is great.

If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?

It was half fairytale, half nightmare. You spend ten years dreaming of getting an agent and then three come along at once. I met three people who are at the top of their field and could have blissfully worked with any of them. It was an impossible decision. In the end, I chose Christopher Little, because I thought if he overawes other people as much as he overawes me, that has to be good. Also, he said it would be years before I was truly successful, and I was encouraged that he was clearly in it for the long haul. (Also, he seemed to think that one day I might be truly successful.)

Would you recommend entering competitions?

No, don’t do it!

Yes! Of course, do it!

I’ve entered loads – for travel writing and short stories, mostly. I’ve only made the shortlist once before, but I’ve kept doing it. It keeps you writing. It gives you the sense that someone is reading. It makes you feel part of a community. And there’s a chance that, even if you don’t win, you’ll grab someone’s attention and get closer to a deal.
Writing a good novel is a start, but having a group of people actually offering to read it for you is a major step along the way. Go for it! And don’t worry if you don’t get shortlisted. Just keep going. Plus, I made online friends with one of the other shortlisted authors. You never know where it’s going to take you.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I plan them chapter by chapter, so I end up with a paragraph to describe what happens in each chapter, which is usually about 1,500 words. In the Threads series I have four characters with interweaving stories, so I have to make sure their stories intertwine at appropriate moments. Then the voice takes over. That’s the best bit. Sometimes the characters do what they’re supposed to, but on a good day they go off in slightly unexpected directions and I write as fast as I can to keep up with them. I know I sound like Joyce Grenfell doing her ‘Writer of Children’s Books’, but it really is like that.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

Yup. My elder son (eight) insists that there aren’t enough techno-gadgets, chases or fights in my stories, but my stepdaughters (thirteen and fifteen) are keen to know what’s happening. They absolutely made Threads possible. However, they help the most by just talking about what they’re interested in and watching trashy TV with me.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today?

I read the classics and lots of series, like Veronica at the Wells and the Nancy Drew mystery stories. Also stories about children surviving the Second World War, like Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I think some of them might seem slow and quaint to today’s reader, who is really spoiled for choice when it comes to good writing. We’re very lucky to be living in an age of Anthony Horowitz, JK Rowling, Cressida Cowell, Meg Rosoff, Louise Rennison, Eoin Colfer and so many others (you can tell I have boys and girls!). I can’t believe I’ll be on the same shelves as them. Wow wow wow.

What do you think children of today want to read?

Same as always. Stories and characters that take them to a world where they will be tested and will discover their inner strength and character. Stories that let them escape and also work out how to deal with problems that worry them. And stories that tap into their hormones at a time when real life can sometimes be a bit of a disappointment (speaking from personal experience). But also stories that recognise the very short attention span that’s required to read web pages, or texts, or to follow modern movies. Luckily, my attention span is microscopic, so I find it easy to adapt to.

What sort of publicity and marketing will you do? Is it arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?

I am so lucky. All sorts of lovely things are being arranged for me. I’ll be at the Cheltenham Festival and also doing some readings – possibly in costume-related venues round the country. But I’m also telling every local school, bookshop and library I see that I’m available for readings and signings! I’m shameless when it comes to meeting potential readers of the book. I can’t wait.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of THREADS?

While I was writing, it was constant. As I say, I was on version 34 by the time I submitted the book to the competition, and I wrote two further drafts afterwards. I fully expected to have to pull it apart and rewrite it once it won, but somehow, I didn’t. There were a couple of bits we tinkered with, but mostly it was punctuation. I doubt it will ever be that straightforward again.

THREADS is the first in a three book series. Was it always intended as a series and therefore did you have further ideas in mind, or did you have to think about the sequel from scratch? What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?

I wrote Threads very much as a one-off. It was a crazy fashion/refugee thing. How more one-off can you get? However, the characters really came to life as I was writing and they carried on after I’d finished. I knew what they would do next, and after that, and I loved the idea of living with them a bit longer while they did it. I didn’t sit down and think ‘What would a logical sequel be?’ This made the second book much easier to write, in fact, because I was just trying to keep up with the characters. It also makes me more nervous about it now, because they don’t necessarily all do what the reader might expect them to do.
My advice to anyone thinking about a sequel would be: plot it, but don’t write it yet. Get the deal first! It would be too painful, I think, to live with your characters through two books and have both of them sitting in a drawer. Also, you might radically rewrite book 1 once you’ve got an editor, which makes rewriting book 2 inevitable. Having said that, I wrote the first 10,000 words of book 2 before discovering I was shortlisted for book 1, so what do I know?

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Write. Be hard on yourself. Read a lot.
Indulge in ‘How Not to Write a Novel’ by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, because it is very funny and spot on.
Read the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’ from cover to cover. Not as funny, but just as spot on. Keep writing. Make your own luck. Stop reading this blog and get typing!

A few words from Barry Cunningham:

' The judges of the Times/Chicken House New Writers Competition were unanimous in choosing THREADS - brilliant when you think they were drawn from the award winning author David Almond(Skellig) to the popular taste of the Waterstones Children's Buyer Claudia Mody, via librarians and literary pundits! All were knocked out by the humour and humanity of the story, the compelling characters and great plot showing that fashion and creativity can matter to real people too!
I think from my point of view I could see that the novel would MATTER to young girls who are concerned with issues as well as entertainment. Perfect really. Sophia has a great writing career ahead of her.'

Barry Cunningham
Publisher and Chair of Judges

Sophia's Blog

Chicken House

1 comment:

Howard said...

Tracy, fascinating stuff, again! Thank you.

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