Feature Article for The Young Writers Newsletter by Sue Bentley
We Other – a psychological fairy thriller – is my first book for Young Adults.
I have always loved fairy tales – and English Folkore – the traditional kind, not the sanitised fairy stories that are heavily sugared before being made into Disney films. In the original story of Hansel and Gretel for example, the old woman in the gingerbread house cooked children in her red-hot iron stove. And the ugly sisters in Cinderella snipped off their toes to be able to wedge their feet into the glass slipper.
I suppose I liked to shiver with horror and delight when reading these tales, while safely cuddled up on the sofa in front a fire with rain lashing at the windows. It was these childhood memories that inspired me to write We Other, which contains many elements of those scary tales, as well as some of their magic and beauty.
But a book of fiction has to have a main character, doesn’t it? Meet Jess Morgan – sixteen years old, an awkward loner with few friends, she’s difficult and streetwise, but loyal to a fault, brave and with a good heart. We Other is Jess’s story. I wanted the reader to understand why she’s the way she is. I gave Jess lots of problems, not to mention some nasty shocks, and put her in terrible danger. But she rose to every challenge and emerged a stronger, wiser and different person – quite literally – by the end of the book.
I think you have to love your characters, both good and bad. To let your reader know why they do the things they do. If someone lies, for example, it might be that telling the truth would be to hurt someone. Or equally it might be to save themselves from getting into trouble. These are things that bring a character to life and make them seem real to us. Jess isn’t all sweetness and light, but I’m rooting for her and I hope the reader will too, once they get to know her.
So many things inspired me when I was writing We Other. I love nature – don’t tell anyone but I’m a bit of a tree-hugger on the quiet! I think trees are some of the most amazing, wonderful things on the planet – so a pinch of that went into the book. I love streams, rivers and lakes, so a sprinkling of that went in. I also love animals, especially wild ones, so there’s a seasoning of that in there too. This book is beginning to sound like a cake mixture – too many hours spent watching Bake-Off maybe?
But in a way, a book is a bit like a cake – you put in all the ingredients of a good plot, strong characters, some twists and turns, lots of surprises, a few scary things, maybe a love story at the heart of it all – and you stir it all up with a big wooden spoon. And you make sure that every sentence reads smoothly and says exactly what you meant it to. And if you can cut out a word and it still makes sense, then you didn’t need that word. But I’m moving on from the actual writing to the tidying up and editing that comes later. First get the words onto the page. I write directly onto my desktop PC, but I make notes in longhand. I like the feel of a pen- actually I use multi-coloured propelling pencils, with an eraser in the end. I like the flow of words from my brain down through my hand and onto the paper. It makes a change from bashing at a keyboard all day.
Back to the book. Lots of things can inspire a novel. People often ask me where I get my ideas from. The answer is from everywhere; reading good fiction, a scrap of conversation overheard in a supermarket queue, talking to friends, watching a movie, sitting in a café watching the world go by. So many things spur the creative process. I keep a notebook handy, to jot down anything that comes to mind. It could be the colour of a sunset, or a particularly lovely name which might put me in mind of a character. I keep a notebook by my bed too. Some of my best ideas come in dreams, or I might wake up with a story in my head. I used to think I’d remember it when I was fully awake, but I never did. So now I jot them down, or at least a couple of keywords, then go back to sleep. Try it – it works.
I was once inspired by a visit to an exhibition of Victorian Fairy paintings. Some were so beautiful they almost broke your heart – but there were also disquieting things lurking in the shadows in some of them. Of course I looked very carefully at those! One of the characters in We Other, who is related to Jess, was born from the paintings I saw that day. All the experiences, the memories, the things we see and hear go into the melting pot of a writer’s brain. It’s all there ready to rise to the surface during the process of writing. Like many writers, I do a lot of preparation before I actually begin a book. But the real magic of writing happens when you are –well – actually doing the writing.
It sounds simple – but writers must write. That’s the law – I’m afraid! Not to talk about it and put it off for another time or wait until you feel ready. You might never feel confident enough to start. So just get writing and keep at it. That’s the key. You’ll make mistakes. I’ve made every mistake possible, but you’ll learn and you’ll get better. It’s easier to correct or flesh out a piece of work, but you have to have written it first.
The other thing I’m often asked is why do you write for Young Adults? The answer is that I write the book that suits the characters. Jess is sixteen. I’m not, but I was once. I remember the confusion, the conflicting emotions, trying to fit in with the cool kids whose parents had more money than mine. The heartache of first love, the struggle to do the right thing and the pain of loss. All those things and others are felt by young people today. Emotions are universal. We Other deals with some difficult issues, too. But we live in an age when teens and young people have access to world news. They know about difficult ‘grown-up’ stuff. A lot of them have had to deal with problems or look after sick parents.
I think it’s important to respect the audience you’re writing for. I hope I’ve got it right. I visited a library recently where We Other had been chosen as book of the month by the Young Adult reading group. There were some great questions that really made me think and we had a lively discussion. The verdict was that they wanted more. That’s the best thing a writer can hear…
Finally – keep reading good fiction. All writers are avid readers. Good luck with your own writing.