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My Writing Life: SJ Bennett

An author photo of SJ Bennett
  • 29 April, 2024

SJ Bennett grew up reading mystery stories and travelling the world as an army child. She became a strategy consultant and wrote several award-winning books for teenagers before turning to adult crime novels with the Her Majesty the Queen Investigates series. Her books have been published in over twenty languages, from Japanese to Catalan. She has taught writing with City Lit and City University, and is an RLF Fellow. She lives in South London, where she also runs a writing podcast for aspiring authors called Prepublished.

  1. What book should every writer read?

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Its prescriptive 42 beats of the writing process will drive you mad, but I think they’re written a little tongue-in-cheek. It’s a bit like most child-rearing advice: as long as you don’t expect to follow it precisely, or for it to fit your circumstances exactly, it contains a few nuggets of wisdom about how story works that will help you out of a hole.

At the other end of the prescriptive spectrum, there’s Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. He was the one who said “Nobody knows anything”, and this account of his wild days in Hollywood is proof of that. He wrote The Princess Bride and All the President’s Men, so he knew a thing or two about great storytelling. And the book itself is hugely entertaining.

  1. What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you started your writing career?

“That book you’re working on now? Finish it.”

Luckily, I was told this pretty early on, and it’s always been useful: the thing that really matters is what you’re writing now, and having the next book lined up in your head. Looking backwards, caring about what happened before, be it rejection, or poor sales, or fabulous sales, is just unhealthy time-wasting.

This is Neil Gaiman’s advice, which I fully support. You can’t do the real work of editing until you have something complete to work with. I spent the first few years starting and abandoning projects, or massively reworking the start before I had the end. For me, regardless of their professional status, a writer is someone who finishes things.

  1. What is the best advice you’ve ever received about your writing?

I tend to think of a scene the way my main character would see it, so it wasn’t instinctive for me to describe things that they would simply take for granted, such as the interiors of the Queen’s residences. One of my editors pointed out that readers want to know this stuff. So I had to work on the artifice of writing something in the Queen’s voice that sounds authentic, but that she probably wouldn’t be thinking. It’s a useful skill to have.

Right now, the advice I’m most grateful for is to set up my own newsletter. Readers around the world respond to me with their reactions to the books, as well as their own life stories. It’s hugely rewarding and motivating to know they’re there, that they get pleasure from what I write, and that they’re waiting for the next book.

  1. What is the most underestimated challenge about being a professional writer?

Living with an unpredictable income and fitting the work around family and a second job. I feel very fortunate that I can write full-time at the moment. For a lot of my career I’ve also taught creative or academic writing, which has been essential to get me through lean times. Luckily, it’s been very fulfilling too.

5. What was the proudest moment of your writing career?

Seeing my debut novel, Threads, printed and published, on a shelf in Waterstones Piccadilly. They still do a wonderful job of promoting my books there. For A Death in Diamonds, it was a whole stand. Amazing.

6. What is your typical writing day like?

It varies hugely. A perfect day would be sending my 17 year-old off to school, getting on with some yoga upstairs and a coffee in the garden, followed by a few hours in my shed, reviewing yesterday’s chapter and writing 2-3,000 words, before coming in and cooking supper. That happens sometimes and it’s the best ever feeling when it does.

At the moment I’m having an 18-week course of chemotherapy, so the creative time I would spend in the book tends to be spent on self-care. Five years ago, I had 12 weeks of radiotherapy and once it was over I wrote The Windsor Knot in a burst of creativity over the summer. I’m hoping the same will happen this summer with book 5 in the series.

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