On Being a Non-Fiction Author

by Susan Martineau

I was a nerdy, fact-collecting bookworm from an early age. I can’t quite believe that, as a children’s non-fiction author, I still get to hoover up information and become a temporary expert on anything from earthquakes to earthworms.

My first job in publishing was as a dogsbody in the sales department of a small publisher. I kept a beady eye on opportunities in editorial and eventually managed to persuade the editorial director, over a pint of Guinness, to take me on as one of her editors. This was followed by a stint as an editor at BBC Books working on all kinds of adult and children’s titles including cookery, natural history, foreign language learning and travel books. One of my favourites was The Blue Peter Green Book for children.

I never imagined I would actually write a book myself until I went freelance and the lovely folk at b small publishing ltd asked me to write a cookery book for children called Gruesome Grub. Testing recipes on my trusting offspring and writing them up so that children could make the disgusting dishes with the minimum of adult help was brilliant fun. Since then, I’ve written many more children’s activity and information books for b small and other publishers. Many of them have been published in foreign co-editions, too. It’s quite a blast to see your words translated into Finnish, Portuguese or Mandarin Chinese.

I love the process of developing the idea for a book, researching the contents (sometimes it’s hard to know where to stop!) and writing the kind of book that I hope children will enjoy delving into, learning from and maybe even be inspired by to read more. It’s not just fiction that can unleash the imagination.

The research stage is crucial. Writing for children is a great honour and I have a huge sense of responsibility to make sure that I am using the most up-to-date and accurate information available. Of course I use the internet, but I also go to my local library, rummage around in charity bookshops and spend happy hours fossicking in my own rather large collection of children’s books. I keep a list of all my sources so that I can always go back and check and double check my facts.

Writing up the text can be tricky as it’s so tempting to put EVERYTHING in. I usually work with a kind of template in mind of how I’d like each double-page spread to look and this keeps me in check! I also make a list of all the illustrations I’d like in the book and it’s magical when the book designer sends me the first pdfs with the pictures in place. We then spend a great deal of time making sure that text and illustrations work well together, and I fret over small details like bad word breaks at the end of lines and text that is too close to pictures. I also double check all my facts again, something of an obsession!

I guess I’ve probably written about 40 books by now, but my favourite book is, of course, Real-life Mysteries – the one that won this year’s Blue Peter Book with Facts Award. And this nerd was delighted when the current editor of the programme said he still had a copy of The Blue Peter Green Book on his desk, too!

This is a guest post from Susan Martineau and the views expressed not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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