Thursday 28 November 2013

About telling the truth

Last weekend (23rd November, 2013) I was in Winchester speaking at the Lighting the Spark conference organised by SCBWI - the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (UK bit). In case you haven't come across it, SCBWI is an excellent and supportive organisation run by and for writers and illustrators, both published and unpublished.

I'd been looking forward to going to the conference for months. As it approached, and problems at home multiplied, I kept all digits crossed, but finally got there. And then - after a a lovely evening with Crabbit Nicola Morgan and OUP designer/illustrator Lily Trotter, I got food poisoning. Aaargh. All looked in jeopardy. But Nicola and the wonderful and kind Kathryn Evans found me a dungeon to lurk in until five minutes before my slot and I got through. We had a lively session, thanks to the great audience, but I was only about 10% sparkle and I'm very sorry if I disappointed anyone who felt they had squandered their mid-morning slot on me. At least Lily didn't disappoint.

Lily and I were talking together about writing and illustrating for the education market and non-fiction. There seems to be a massive misconception that these two are the same thing. I wanted to use part of our session to help straighten that out, but in the event only touched on that. We decided instead to have a massive conversation with the audience, a Q&A session, which was much more fun. But in case you actually wanted to know what non-fiction covers, I'll put here what I didn't say there.

(I'm going to illustrate this post with my own books simply because I don't need permission to use the illustrations and I already have the covers on my computer. Please don't think I want you to buy them, or think they are better than other books. There are no links to buy - this is not a promotional post.)  

Types of non-fiction

Like all writing you want to sell, if you write non-fiction you need to identify your market and write for it. There are, roughly, four types of market for non-fiction. (I'm talking about books here. There are lots of markets for articles and other stuff, too.) You can write for:

Proper educational markets - academic books and text books.You'll find these books in classrooms and in school and university libraries. If you can find a school library.

Some text books are used for home-schooling, or for people providing extra work/tuition at home. I don't generally write these at all. Many are written by teachers with expertise in how the subject is taught. Although it is very easy to develop expertise in a subject, expertise in how it is taught really only comes from teaching it. That's how you find out which methods work and which bits people find hard. There are also open learning books, which are course books for people who don't have face-to-face tutorial support. It's quite a specialist area, and as most of it is now delivered online it's not a market that's generally reached through traditional publishers. The exception is teaching English as a foreign language, which is pretty much dominated by one or two big publishers.

Academic books are not for children. I have written them, but only in my area of academic expertise. If you have a PhD/academic teaching experience, you might be able to write academic books. But you won't get any worthwhile money from it, so you might not want to.

 Schools and libraries - books that are not used as teaching texts, but often support areas of the curriculum or provide extra information about topics and subjects a child might be introduced to in school. You'll find these books in libraries, school libraries, and sometimes in bookshops. If you want to write these, you'll have to get to grips with the National Curriculum and various bits of the US state curricula, but they are not specifically curriculum-coverage books.

Trade - general non-fiction which is not linked to the curriculum or school subjects. These are usually on topics children are interested in but don't have to learn - ballet, vehicles, spies, crafts, dinosaurs, space.. that kind of thing. it also includes some types of novelty book - such as origami instructions with packs of paper, or pop-up non-fiction books. You'll find these books in normal high-street bookshops. If you can find a high-street bookshop.

Mass market - often cheaply produced in large print runs, and entirely uneducational - such as joke books, books of random facts, books about sport and games. This includes puzzle and quiz books and some types of novelty title.They are often sold in discount bookshops and through organisations such as Book People.

And finally... educational books are not only non-fiction. There are educational books that are stories. They can be:

Stories written specifcally to be part of reading schemes or as graded or levelled books. You'll need to understand about reading levels, sometimes write to a brief, and take account of things that are and are not allowed to make the texts acceptable to a wide range of children. Many are based around school or home environments, or involve pets or other animals. They will have to fit in with a list or series so that teachers know what to expect and can plot each child's progress.

 Stories for reluctant or slow readers. This is my favourite market, but it's very challenging. You need to come up with plots, characters and themes appropriate to older children, then present them in accessible language and with simple syntax but without ever being patronising. It's a special skill - if you want to write flowery description and slowly unfurling plots, this is not for you.

Retellings of classics or traditional tales. What it says on the tin. Some people don't approve of these as they say - quite rightly - that the point of a book is not just its story. But some children are drawn to read the full text later because they liked a retelling. These are not a chance for being imaginative. You need to distill the essence of the story and (as long as the publisher allows it) a feel for the style of the original, and know where to cut (no room for a full Dickensian cast).

Of course, there's loads of other things to say about writing non-fiction/educational books. But I have to go and write about dinosaurs and maths, so they will have to wait for another day.


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