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:
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.
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:
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?
YES WOULD I EVER!?
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:
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: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/sharingpractice/p/percythepuffin/introduction.asp
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: https://auntyemily.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/tales-from-our-wild-park/
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 https://auntyemily.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/dundee-literary-festival-2014/
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!
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.
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.
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!