Category Archives: Writing

Writing Non-fiction: Volcanoes

I was so excited when I first saw the colour proofs of my new book Volcanoes. The book is published by HarperCollins and is a school book aimed at children aged 8 and 9 years. I’d written instructions for photos and diagrams but the result on the page was visually far more beautiful than I could have ever had imagined:


Team Effort

That’s what I love about writing books – the culmination of lots of people’s creativity comes together to make an end product far better than the sum of its parts. So many people are an integral part of the process, my agent (Lindsey Fraser), my editor (Leilani Sparrow), the illustrator (Ann Paganuzzi) and people like my brother-in-law (Greg Holland) who checked over the science and my parents, who helped spell check my first drafts.

The Process

I learnt loads during the process of writing Volcanoes. I wanted to share a bit of that with you, in case you’re interested in writing non-fiction for children. I’ve broken non-fiction writing down into five stages:

  • Pitching
  • Planning
  • Writing
  • Editing
  • Graphics

I’ll try to share as much of the process with you as I can.

Stage 1: Pitching

My agent Lindsey Fraser got in touch with a few of her writers to say HarperCollins were looking for someone to write a book on volcanoes. It included details about what was required:

  • word length (2800 – 3000 words)
  • number of pages (48)
  • age aimed at (8-9 years)

Was this something I would be interested in?


Was the answer.

Except I wrote my answer in a more expanded form via email. If you get a chance to pitch for something you want to try to demonstrate why you might be the perfect person for the job. I wanted to show a mixture of experience, passion and background knowledge. Here’s what I put:

Hi Lindsey,

This sounds brilliant – I’d love to pitch to write ‘Volcanoes‘. I’d need a clear brief and samples of the style they’re looking for but assuming this would follow? In terms of timing this is perfect – I’ve got weekend events and book festivals in October but could write during the week on this. Here are a few points I think are in my favour:

I have relevant background knowledge with a degree in Geophysical Sciences and a Masters in Communicating Science.

During my 2 year post as Education Officer at Our Dynamic Earth Edinburgh I created and presented shows and workshops on Earth Sciences (including volcanoes).

My original educational writing is a best practice case study on Education Scotland:

I have written science show workshops for National Museums Scotland, Dynamic Earth Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Changeoworks, Edinburgh International Science Festival and the Scottish Seabird Centre.

My commercial non fiction writing includes a dinosaur kids club magazine, toilet science posters and developing new ideas for science shows for the BBC and for independent production companies.

I created the series treatment for CBeebies Science Show Nina and the Neurons for an earth science based series ‘Earth Explorers’ – this series was commissioned based on my work and I worked as a screenwriter for four of the episodes.

I wrote an Eco Power Pack for upper primary school children (published by Changeworks).

I most recently wrote a 50 page non fiction book for adults – ‘Tales from Our Wild Park’ for Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. This engaging biodiversity action plan launched in Glasgow Queen Street Station with the Environment Minister in August 2014. The John Muir Trust describe it as the best example of biodiversity writing they have ever seen and are now giving copies to everyone who does the John Muir Award. More about that here:

I can drop a copy of ‘Tales from Our Wild Park’ in on the way to the Lit Salon later? Around 5? If you like I can show you my sketch book too (:

Also I’m doing a science writing event at Porty Book Fest with Anna Claybourne – she wants to get into TV science writing so I think she’d help me with the pitch for this if I helped her with a TV pitch in the future (assuming she’s not going for this too). See

Thanks loads for thinking of me,


Unfortunately it took me a couple of hours to put this mixture of passion and experience together and by the time I’d done it, the job had gone to someone else. I was gutted. But Lindsey sent my email on to HarperCollins for future reference and that was that.

A couple of weeks later, the person got the job decided it wasn’t right for them and at that point HarperCollins asked Lindsey if they could have me. Suddenly I was in with a chance. With the first hurdle over, the hardest bit started. Creating a plan for a good book!


Volcanoes cover

I had the title, ‘Volcanoes’, that was all.  Now I needed a structure, that’s chapter headings and content for 19 double page spreads. The whole book needed to flow and each spread build enough knowledge for the next one. For example you need to know about the structure of the Earth and the tectonic plates before you can understand why lava comes out of the Earth in between plates.

I got all the HarperCollins Big Cat series books for that age out of the library so I could see the style I was writing to. I also ordered all the books on Volcanoes on Edinburgh Libraries system and I read them all.

I researched the school curriculum for key stage two, I drafted and redrafted my plan.

I asked Anna Claybourne for help. She’s a brilliant non fiction writer I’d met because we were on a panel together talking about science writing at Portobello book festival. I wanted to see a synopsis for a book and she kindly sent me one of hers for the same series. This was so helpful because I got to see the style of a successful pitch.

Because I was new to the publishers they wanted a double page spread writing sample as well as a synopsis. The synopsis contains chapter headings and a description on what specifically would be covered in each spread. I chose the introductory spread ‘what is a volcano’ and I wrote the next spread too because it was good practice for me.

I worked on the synopsis and samples spreads and sent them to my agent and then to my editor at HarperCollins. They made suggestions and I worked on these and when the editor was satisfied she sent it to her boss, the commissioning editor for feedback.

It came back with some suggestions, bits they liked about the book for example ‘volcanoes in space’ and case studies of volcanoes illustrating the science – could I add more of these? And bits they didn’t like for example, could I take out a spread because it seemed too young or reword another because it seemed too advanced.

The same happened with my writing sample. There were bits I needed to take out e.g. treacle as an analogy for lava (because it doesn’t work in translation and this book is translated into 40 languages) and bits I needed to clarify or explain better. In general, I was too expressively excited, there were too many funny bits and I needed a more straightforward writing style.

I found this stage the hardest because it was me learning to write less like me and more in their style. It’s hard to delete or change ideas you’ve spent a long time getting right. But as my agent reminded me, it’s a popular series of books around the world and it has to be right in their eyes not mine – one bad book could cause a country to pull out of the series all together. I needed to change to their way of doing things and not the other way around. So I did just that, I learned to write the way they wanted me to write and where I believed something was essential for the book I justified why I thought we should keep it, the relevance of the science or why it was needed to build knowledge but it wasn’t about me, it was about making the book as good as possible for the series.

And although this was the hardest process it was also really rewarding when I got into the zone of writing the way they wanted me to and the new versions of the synopsis and my text for Volcanoes were signed off.


Then it was time for the next big task, writing the book!


This was my favourite bit. I had a clear plan and I just needed to get on with it. I had a few weeks to write it and I sent versions to family members to check for spelling and to my brother-in-law (who lectures first year geology at University) to check the science.

I love the challenge of explaining advanced science in a simple way but without losing the science. It was brilliant to get feedback from people who didn’t have a background knowledge – just a question like “what does that mean?” was enough to make me realise I’d assumed a level of background knowledge or not explained something clearly. That’s why working with an editor was great (see Editing section!).


The book has pictures and diagrams throughout. I had to come up with what the pictures and diagrams would show to best illustrate the text and explain the science. I also needed to describe any diagram clearly if I wanted the illustrator to draw it. I’d often include a link to something similar on the internet and I’d add notes e.g. like this, but not in 3D.

I’d say what I wanted photos to be but sometimes I’d put a few options because I know they’d need to find photos from a catalogue of images. Certain things though were quite specific e.g. Lava fields in Iceland needed to be just that.



My agent checked over it at later stages and then I submitted it to my brilliant editor and she gave me feedback before passing it on to the commissioning editor. We’d often do that in a chat over the phone – I loved those chats – she’d say something that was wrong and I’d come up with a solution or we’d come up with one together. It would remind me that this is what I love doing – problem solving and explaining science.

Once I’d heard back from the commissioner I’d make changes within a week and she’d get back to me again with anything else.There’s not many words per spread so every word matters and if you add clarification somewhere you’d needed to reduce something else to take into account those extra words. For example I had to add captions for diagrams and photos so I used words from within the text because otherwise we’d go over the word limit.

Later I got back colour proofs with all of the photos and diagrams, it was amazing to see it at that stage – looking like a book and so exciting. At that point I made lots of small suggestions like adding an arrow for clarification or moving a photo to the other page on the spread so it was next to the text describing it.

What’s next?

Since writing Volcanoes, I’ve been commissioned to write another non-fiction school book – hurrah! So once you’ve got one written, if you do a good job and you’re a nice person to work with, you’re likely to get more work. I’m currently in the editing process of that book so I can’t tell you anymore then that. I’m also putting together a few pitches for other nonfiction books for children with my agent so fingers crossed for those.

First Reviews

A friend bought volcanoes for her 8 year old son who is doing volcanoes as a topic in school. He got really excited when he opened it – he read the whole thing in one go and asked if he could write a review on amazon!

I hope you write another book because this one is really good.

This was the first time he’s asked to review anything and he reads lots of science books. This was really lovely encouragement for me – thank you Connor, it makes it all worth while. Read his review on amazon here.

If you’d like to read Volcanoes you can request it from your local library or buy volcanoes at your local Waterstones or book shops or buy it online. Thanks to everyone who helped make this book happen! 

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 22, 2015 in Education, illustration, Science, Writing


Tags: , , , , ,

A lovely surprise

I popped into my local Waterstones at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh. I was collecting a book I’d ordered. While I was there, I walked over to the picture book section to see if I could see my books. I was met with the most lovely surprize:


Massive thanks to the folk at Waterstones for doing this! I’ve never seen a recommendation in a book shop for one of my books so it totally made my day. I offered to sign all the copies in the shop after that.

On the subject of surprises, I was sent a lovely video from Alex Howard of his lovely wee friend opening her surprise, a copy of the Grouse and the Mouse. Is Bagpipe secretly a chicken?!:

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Education, Environment, Writing


Tags: , , , , ,



August was a little bit overwhelming. It included nine lots of airbnb guests staying in my old flat, three Edinburgh International Book Festival events, two events at the Green Man festival in Wales, one event in the Cairngorms, a visit from my sister, niece and nephew and three writing deadlines.

I’d launched a book and moved house at the end of July so I didn’t start August in the most relaxed place either. I’d also borrowed money and had a large amount on a credit card and had friends who were going through difficult situations. So I was feeling overwhelmed but then I had a mini revelation at a conference.

Firstly I felt like I should make a list of all the good things that had happened in August. I used to write things I was thankful for in a book at night – a gratitude diary. But I’d somehow got out of that habit a few months back. I’d stopped remembering to be grateful.


So I made that list.

And then the speaker was talking about his three-year old daughter. They were in a lift and more and more people were getting in and it was hot and the people were smelly and the wee kid said “pick me up Daddy, it doesn’t look good down here”.

And so the Dad picked up his daughter. And the situation hadn’t changed, they were still squashed into a lift but the child had a different view and that changed everything. So I looked back at the list and realised I’d lost perspective – I’d been too crowded by circumstances and I’d stopped noticing the good things.

So I thought I’d share a few of the good things here in pictures:

A Visit from Family

I had three days off just doing nice things like making this mermaid:


Unbound at Edinburgh International Book Festival

On the subject of mermaids, a group of Illicit Ink writers each took a fairy tale and rewrote it with a twist. This is the Wee Mermanny:

Illicit Ink: Happily Never After

Chris Scott took some amazing pictures of this event. I’d rewritten sleeping beauty but with cryogenic freezing:

Illicit Ink: Happily Never After

Green Man Festival

Wales, camping! I did a Cameron kids event in a tent and then some science spoken word for a soggy Sunday afternoon huddle.


Edinburgh International Book Festival Children’s Events


I enjoyed meeting families at ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably‘ and doing a schools event for Gala day to promote ‘The Grouse and the Mouse‘.

Loch Garten and the Giant Black Grouse


One of my favourite things had to be taking Can’t-Dance-Cameron to the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in the Cairngorms. This was the place that first inspired me to write a story about a dancing capercaillie.

There was a wee girl at the event called Islay. It’s always children who remind me of the important things in life. She was four with curly red hair. She’d been to see me do Can’t-Dance-Cameron at Dundee Literary Festival last October. Now she’d brought her older cousins and her younger cousins and several families. I soon realised she was the most excited and enthusiastic audience member I’d ever had. When we got to learning the dance moves she triumphantly shouted her catchphrase “I know that!”.

So I got Islay up to the front to help show everyone how to dance like a capercaillie. She was so happy dancing there and when the music stopped I asked the audience to give her a round of applause. The entire Osprey Centre started clapping. All the adults who had been busy at the telescopes during the session had stopped to watch her and now they were clapping so hard . Islay smiled back at everyone. It was really wonderful.

The thing is, going off to the cairngorms by myself was a little daunting. Whenever I do events I feel well… alone. It’s a bit weird. I think it’s maybe because my greatest fear was and probably still is standing up in front of people. I did an MSc in communicating science ten years ago to try to conquer that fear, to learn the skills I needed to stand up in front of people. But it’s not like those feelings ever go away. I get nervous. If I’m on the stage I’m being me so it feels kind of vulnerable. If I’m sharing something I’ve written that’s also me, so it’s double me in front of people and it often makes me feel sick! But when I’m in front of kids I’m so I’m busy making sure they’re having a good time that there’s not really time to think about me. And Islay was having the time of her life so I guess I realised it was all totally worth it

The staff at the Osprey Centre were so welcoming and excited too (not quite as excited as Islay, but still pretty up there). They wrote about the event on their blog here. One of the rangers, Nimrod dressed as Bagpipe the black grouse from The Grouse and the Mouse. He learnt all the Cameron the caercaillie dance moves and came out after we finished the story to join us for one last dance. Unfortunately – the arrival of a giant bird caused three of the children to cry! So he danced at the back instead. He was very complimentary about the session:

“What you’re doing for conservation is astounding!”

Again I was reminded it is all worth it!

IMG_20150809_152507 (1)

After the event I went for a two-hour walk in the forest and it was so beautiful! And I didn’t feel alone even though it was just me. I felt happy.


And that night I had curry with the rangers, the Education Officer Jen cooked up a feast. Nimrod arrived and said he couldn’t believe that I was there with them and it was just really lovely to eat and find out more about wildlife.

And Now?

One of the writing deadlines I had during that busy August was a synopsis for a non-fiction science book. I heard last week it’s been signed off. So now I’m writing and that’s a new book on the way. I finally put the forest up in my office / room:


I guess it’s a reminder to stop, and reflect and breathe. And to know it will all be okay. Sometimes we just need a new perspective.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 22, 2015 in Events, nature, Science, storytelling, Writing


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Nina and the Neurons: Get Building

I’m excited to let you know a new series of BBC Children’s science show Nina and the Neurons begins on the CBeebies channel today at 4.30pm. The series is called ‘Get Building’ and it’s all about exploring how structures are made, both man made and in nature.

Nina building

I loved writing for the series, I’ll add the times and titles of my episodes below once they’ve been released. I hope you enjoy them!

Wed 23rd Sep, 4.30pm: Arches

Mon 28 Sep, 4:30pm: Living Underground

Read more about previous series I’ve worked on by clicking the links below.

Get Sporty

Earth Explorers

Go Engineering

1 Comment

Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Education, Media, nature, Science, Writing


Tags: , , , , ,

The Grouse and the Mouse: First Reviews


A friend sent me this lovely picture of her girls, Poppy and Evie, reading the Grouse and the Mouse. She also sent me some audio clips of them reviewing the book. It was so lovely to hear their voices and I thought you might enjoy them too.

Click the orange play buttons below:

The Grouse and the Mouse, illustrated by Kirsteen Harris-Jones is my second picture book and it just came out last month so these were my first reviews. It’s a bit scary having a new book come out and not being sure what everyone will think of it, so it’s really encouraging to get some feedback from readers.

I had this text message from my friend Judith:

Some feedback from 19m old Grace on the Grouse and the Mouse, written by her mummy – Thank you very much for the book. Grace loves it. She made me read it to her 4 times this morning and when Bagpipe flies into the fence she shouts ‘no!’ x

I’ve also had a couple of nice reviews on Amazon, one on Lothian Life Magazine and one on Armadillo:

A delightfully funny and heartwarming story of two very unusual friends, animals who learn to understand their differences and work together. Charming illustrations luring the reader into the beauty of the Scottish countryside add to the appeal.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s been buying, reading and reviewing The Grouse and the Mouse!

Leave a comment

Posted by on August 13, 2015 in storytelling, Writing


Tags: , ,

The Grouse and the Mouse Book Launch

19598538370_cdae03474a_h (1)

Earlier this month I launched my new picture book ‘The Grouse and the Mouse’, illustrated by Kirsteen Harris-Jones. Here are the highlights of the launch thanks to photographer Chris Scott (and to all of you who tweeted your own pictures too!).

We arrived at the venue to discover these amazing birds were already waiting for us:

Eyebrows were painted red, just like Bagpipe the black grouse by Katie Smith. Katie is the friend who the book is dedicated too – read more about that here:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

My lovely editor Eleanor Collins introduced the evening:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch
I introduced the audience to the characters from the story, Squeaker the wood mouse, Bagpipe the black grouse and also some of the minor characters – this is the fox from the story:

The Grouse and the Mouse launch

I had some help to demonstrate how camouflage works:

The Grouse and the Mouse launch

The Grouse and the Mouse launch

I introduced the highland cow from the story, MacMoo with a true of false quiz:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

Most of the audience think what I’m saying to them is MacMoo True:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

But this statement is definitely Poo False:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

Then it was time for the story with actions (Squelch Squelch):
The Grouse and the Mouse launchRound of applause from a lovely audience: The Grouse and the Mouse launch

And then it was a Q and A hosted by poet and friend (with red eyebrows) Elspeth Murray:
The Grouse and the Mouse launchThanks to everyone who asked questions: The Grouse and the Mouse launch

And there were lots of thank yous to be said:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

And then it was book signing, I got to meet my illustrator Kirsteen Harris-Jones for the first time that night too! We signed books together:
The Grouse and the Mouse launch

Here are some of my favourite tweets about the event:

Huge thanks to everyone who came along and made the evening so lovely! Special thanks to the children, seeing your reaction and enthusiasm for the book made my night.

Thanks to photographer Chris Scott for these wonderful photos. You can see more photos in the album from the book launch here

The Grouse and the Mouse is published by Floris Books in the Picture Kelpies range. It is for sale now at all good book stores. Help your local independent book store by buying it online from the Hive. If you enjoyed it, please review it on Amazon! You might also enjoy ‘Can’t Dance Cameron: A Scottish Capercaillie Story‘.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Ready to Launch

Tomorrow I launch my second picture book, The Grouse and the Mouse:


I don’t want to say to much about the story in case you’re coming tomorrow, so for now I’ll just share the text from the back cover:

back cover

Today I’ve felt pretty nervous, I went for a swim earlier to try to swim off my nervous energy. That helped a bit. My friend Katie arrived later today, that helped a lot! This is Katie:


She’s the friend I’ve dedicated the book to. She cried when she first read the book (in a good way). The Grouse (Bagpipe) thinks he knows what’s best for the Mouse (Squeaker) and keeps trying to get him to change the way he’s doing things

“It must be awful to have such a bendy tail, you need a stick to straighten it out”

and so on. But he’s looking at things from a grouse perspective and his advice isn’t right for a mouse. Squeaker, thankfully, is happy with the way he is. He’s confident enough not to let his friend’s strong opinions persuade him to be anything he’s not.

I’ve not always been confident enough to stand up for myself like that, I’ve found myself being shaped by other people’s opinions (especially people that matter to me) but to the point where I’m not being me. Which isn’t good! It’s something I’m working on – I guess I’m trying to be more like Squeaker the wood mouse. And that’s a journey Katie has been on too, she’d been becoming more and more like Squeaker so that’s why I’ve dedicated the book to her.

Earlier today the stickers arrived, they’re to remind everyone to ‘Be yourself’


Stickers via

I’m more or less ready for tomorrow. My presentation includes Laurie Campbell’s beautiful wildlife photos, here’s a sneak preview of one of them:

Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) male displaying at lek in late snowfall, Spey Valley, Speyside, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, April 2002

Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) male displaying at lek in late snowfall, Spey Valley, Speyside, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, April 2002

And I’m excited to be using this piece of audio at the launch too – Martin Garnett’s black grouse recording. They sound quite spooky don’t they?:

(click the orange play button)

There will be a chance to get your eyebrows done in grouse red or any other colour you like. And there will be wine and nibbles and black grouse style bum wiggling and an opportunity to hear the story. The illustrator, Kirsteen Harris-Jones is coming too so you can get your book signed by her and me. Hopefully see you there!

If you don’t have your ticket already, get one here.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 15, 2015 in Education, Events, Media, nature, Science, Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,


Writer, Reader, Kind of Spritely Looking

Gill Arbuthnott's Weblog

children's weblog


words and pictures


Words inspired by moving images


subjects, objects, verbs

Great Big Jar

A great big jar of bloggyness


on Scotland's West Coast


A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Yay! YA+

Scotland's First Festival Dedicated To YA Fiction...And More!

Scotland's Nature

Scottish Natural Heritage

The Accidental Monastic

Reflecting. Relating. Living. Obeying.

Lou Treleaven

Children's author and playwright

Scran Salon

Edinburgh's monthly food shindig

The Grove Community Garden

Fountainbridge Comes Alive Through Community

Forest Families

Promoting play in nature

Home Is Where The Cake Is

Creating real food recipes and cakes and baking delectable vintage afternoon teas


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 249 other followers

%d bloggers like this: