We were ecstatic to have the opportunity to interview award-winning young adult author, Holly Smale, writer of the hilarious Geek Girl series. Find out how Holly finds inspiration, what she thinks makes the best heroes and villains, and her advice for our Bedtime Story Competition entrants...
1) How do you come up with an idea for a story?
Most of my best ideas turn up when I'm bored: when I'm washing up, or waiting in a queue, or staring out of a window on a long train journey. It's actually really hard to be bored - there's so much to keep us all busy - but it's essential for creativity: after a while of nothing to do, my brain starts to make its own entertainment.
Ideas come from everywhere, and I try to pay close attention to what genuinely fires my imagination. If I find myself Googling something to find out more about it, or asking lots of questions, or thinking about something that has happened a lot, I know there's a story idea buried in it somewhere: my head has snagged on the seed of something. Then, when I know what it is, I plant it and give it time to let it expand naturally, adding on ideas and letting it grow bigger in any way it wants. It's one of the most exciting things about writing: watching a tiny, random idea develop into an actual, fully fledged story.
But boredom: that's the key to it! Don't be afraid of feeling bored. That's where our brains do some really special and magical stuff.
2. How do you come up with your main character?
All my characters grow from seeds, just like my plot ideas. They usually start with one or two basic traits - sometimes from inside me, sometimes from people I've met or know - and then as I write they start to expand: developing quirks and flaws and inconsistencies and perspectives all of their own. I'm not interested in writing "strong characters" because to me that means flat, unrealistic and boring. I'm interested in characters who are real, who change, who learn, who are complicated and dynamic and fascinating, like actual humans are.
So whatever my protagonist is like - and there will hopefully be many over the upcoming years - that's what they'll have in common: they'll feel as real as I can possibly make them, regardless of their different characters or the varying situations they find themselves in.
3. What inspired you to become a writer?
My mum is a retired English teacher, and she used to read me really inappropriate poetry in bed when I was a toddler: Keats, Tennyson, Shelley, Shakespeare, lots of people drowning, dying, fires etc. But it gave me a passion for stories - no matter what form they're in - and I immediately started to replicate them: producing my own, whether written, anecdotal or simply made up and told aloud. At four, I realised where books came from and knew immediately that was what I was going to spend my life doing: telling stories and trying to create the magic that books had given me. And I've never wobbled from that (apart from a brief month where I wanted to be the world's tallest ballet dancer), so I'm incredibly lucky that I get to do it for a living now.
4. What do you think makes a great bedtime story?
Hilariously, a productive bedtime story is probably a very boring one: a story you don't really have much interest in and which fires the imagination as little as possible. I've lost count of the nights of sleep I've lost because the book I've been reading has been too absorbing or exciting, either because I can't put it down or because it then stops me sleeping and fills my dreams.
But a great bedtime story? It has to grab the imagination and refuse to let go. It gives you another world, makes you part of it, and then makes it impossible to leave again: makes it haunt you even when it's been put down. That's the key to a brilliant bedtime story. One that stops you sleeping, essentially.
5. If you could give our young writers one piece of advice what would it be?
Play. That's what all stories are: playtime in the imaginations of other people. So when you're sitting down to think up a story, or write it down, you've got to let the playful bit of you go free, no matter how old you are or who you're writing for. Give your imagination the freedom to do whatever it likes, and say whatever it wants to say, without worrying about how it'll turn out or who will want to read it. And trust in that instinct. Humans have been telling stories in one form or another for thousands and thousands of years: we all know what a story is, even if we don't know how we know. So play, have fun and let the story-telling that's built into you take over.
Oh, and - as I've said - get bored. Look boredom straight in the face, tackle it to the ground and force it to tell you something interesting.
Quick Fire Questions
What's your favourite bedtime story book?
Where The Wild Things Are. And as a godmother and aunt I've enjoyed stopping the little people in my life from sleeping after reading it too.
If you could be best friends with anyone from a book, who would it be?
I love Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird: she's feisty, smart and takes no truck from anyone.
Did you have an imaginary friend growing up?
I did: my imaginary friend was Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, and I used to talk to her in my head and tell her how my day had gone, or ask for her opinion when I had problems, or check to see what she'd do in a similar situation. I was quite a lonely child, and over the years Anne became very real and precious to me.
What's your favourite word?
Metamorphosis. It's the closest thing we have to magic in the real world, and it was part of the original title of Geek Girl.
What makes a good goody and a bad baddy?
Inconsistencies. Few people are all good or all bad, and if you can show a tiny chink in whatever emotional armour they're wearing you've immediately got a more interesting and multi-dimensional character. Saying that, part of the joy of really great villains - the Mrs Trunchbull or Head Witch type - is that you're expecting a softening or glimpse of humanity or compassion and you don't get them. So that's great fun to write too.
Who's your best friend? What makes them so good?
My little sister is my best friend. She's funny and compassionate and smart and kind and cool, and she knows and understands me like nobody else ever has. I don't have to pretend to be anything else with her, or even explain myself - because she already knows who I am - and that is a rare and precious gift.
Tell us something we don't know about you...
I have never eaten an egg in my entire life: they freak me out.
Check out our range of Holly Smale books to see why her novels are so loved!