Sunday, 23 January 2011

Writing Non-Fiction for Children: An Interview with Anita Loughrey

* Hi Anita and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hello Tracy,

Thank you for inviting me to feature on your blog. This is the first time I have been interviewed.:) Normally, it is me interviewing the writers, so this is a real novelty for me.

My background is in teaching. I was a primary school teacher for seventeen years before I decided to go full-time as a writer.

I worked my way up from probationer, to ICT Co-ordinator, to Team Leader in three years. Then I became an Acting Deputy Head of the largest primary school in Reading, at the time.

But, after a personal tragedy, my heart was no longer in it. I reduced my hours to part-time and then supply work, before I decided to give up entirely.

Now I write teacher resources and children’s illustrated non-fiction and much prefer it. I can make my own hours and spend more quality time with my children.

* You are the author of 24 non-fiction books. Could you tell us about some of your books?

Most of my books are teacher resources so are written for adults. But, many contain photocopiable worksheets which have to be aimed at the level of the child. You have to adapt your writing accordingly depending on what age the activity sheets are for. I have written worksheets for children aged three to age fourteen. Each time you have to take into carful consideration the suitability of vocabulary and content.

One of the resources I am most proud of is, Quick and Easy Plays for the Primary School, published by Hopscotch in 2007 and presented in a very large lever-arch folder. There are six folders in the series and I wrote the Year Five (ages 9-10) folder. In this folder there are 27 three-act plays with teacher notes, all linked to the Year Five Literacy Strategy and differentiated for reading ability. I hope the teachers have as much fun in using them in the classroom, as I did in writing them. I loved acting out all the parts as I wrote.

A series of books I am very happy to have written are the Developing History series for A&C Black. I wrote the three Key Stage One books and made a large contribution to the two lower junior books too. My editors for this series were Lionel Bender from the book packagers, Bender, Richardson and White and David Norris who was at A&C Black at the time. I really enjoyed the partnership whilst working on this project.

Another book, I am pleased I got the opportunity to write is Explaining Diabetes, which was published by Franklin Watts.
It is aimed at Key Stage Three children, so a little older than most of my other material.
This book made the Top Five Disability and Special Needs Books in Borders in the United States, in January 2010. I think my book was number three in the charts for a few weeks.

Other books I have written includes: a book over 150 science investigations for children from ages 5 to 11, published by Brilliant Publications.

My personal favourite, The Literacy Teacher Training Handbook, which outlines everything teachers needs to know about teaching the Primary Literacy Curriculum. This book provides teachers with three or more ideas for activities for every single objective in the Literacy Framework. It is the book I wish I had whilst I was teaching and was published by Hopscotch Educational in 2009.

My most recent books are a series of four illustrated non-fiction for ages 2+ called Shapes Around Me, published by QED Publishing in September 2010.

The sequel to these, Colours around Me, are due out June 2011. I also have a four book series called Using Stories to Teach ICT out this year. The Year One book was released this month (January 2011).

Also due out this month, is the Starstruck series of six books, which I have co-written under the pseudonym Cathy West, published by Ransom Publishing.

* You began your writing career writing short stories for national women's magazines and feature articles. What inspired you to start writing non-fiction books and what have you learnt about the writing process along the way?

I decided to start writing non-fiction books partly because I find it quite easy and partly because I had a lot of resources I’d made whilst teaching to match specific topics that were linked to the curriculum and differentiated to suit children of all abilities. All these wonderful resources were just sitting in the attic gathering dust.

So, I put together one of my favourite packs, which was on the Aztecs and sent it to a main stream publisher. They wrote back and said they did not take unsolicited manuscripts; they commissioned all their authors who wrote to briefs on subjects they decided.

This did not put me off. I wrote to every primary educational publisher in the Writers and Artists yearbook and outlined my teaching experience, the subjects I had co-ordinated and the age ranges I had taught and told them I was available for work. I have never looked back.

* You worked as a teacher for several years. Did this influence or inspire your writing in any way?

I would never have been able to break into the educational market without my extensive knowledge of teaching and the National Curriculum.

But, something I did discover was that I am very good at writing to brief. I am good at doing what I am told. LOL! This helps. When writing for the educational market you can not be precious about your writing.

So yes, I have found my background in education beneficial as I can match my work to the National Curriculum, as well as the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. I have studied most subjects in depth and know what is required in a classroom situation.

* You write a regular column for Writer’s Forum. Could you tell us what the column is about and how it could help aspiring writers?

My column in the national magazine Writers’ Forum is about the research writers have done for their books. I try to get a good mix of writers from different genres, as research is very different depending what you write.

I think aspiring writers can learn a lot from what other writers do and how they do it. I find it fascinating some of the research people have done to make their work more authentic from shadowing the police, flying on the wings of a bi-plane, learning how to use a gun and being locked in prison. It is amazing the lengths writers will go to for their craft.

* You interview authors about the research they do for their books but what advice or tips would you give to a writer involved in researching a book?

LOL! This must be what the authors I interview feel like.

Hmmm! What advice and tips would I give?

I do a lot of research myself for my non-fiction and teacher resources and I think one of the best pieces of advice that was given to me was, not to get too bogged down in the research. I often find myself going off on a tangent.

Once I was writing a historical fiction text where a Celtic woman was pregnant and the birth was imminent. I did extensive research into the birthing techniques of the Celts, to the point I got in touch with several specialists in the area and we exchanged several emails. None of it made the book but, it was extremely interesting.

My advice is: know what to use and what to cut out and know when to say, ‘Enough is enough – I do not need to do any more research,’ and then get on with the actual writing.

* You must be very busy with all your writing commitments. How do you juggle all your projects and how would you describe your average working day?

It is all down to organisation.

I know sometimes, I come over as slightly scatterbrained. Many of my friends have commented how I need a personal assistant. But, I wrote seventeen books last year, three were over 40,000 words. A lot of them will be released over 2011. I could never have achieved this if I was not organised.

Being an ex-teacher, I work best in a structured environment so I write myself timetables and very long lists.

On my timetables I include eating breakfast, answering emails, time to use Facebook, picking up the kids from school and making the dinner. I even have a timer which beeps to remind me to do things, which I sometimes do not hear if I have my music on too loud.

This was Monday’s timetable:

OK. I know this is very sad. But, if I didn’t do this, I would probably spend my time playing loads of Spider solitaire and Freecell on my PC, trying on lots of different clothes and outfits, watching the trees move in the wind outside my study window, dancing around my study like a loon whilst singing as loud as I can, forgetting to eat and leaving the poor kids stranded at the school gate. That is not to say these things have never happened; they just happen less when I keep to the timetable.

I have a different timetable for each day, so don’t really have a set routine as such. Tuesday’s I like to go to the library in the morning and most Thursday’s I travel into London. I do some of my best writing on the train. At least once a week I go to coffee with my friends and sometimes the timetable includes housework but, not very often - only if I am going to have visitors to the house, or I am seriously procrastinating.

If something urgent comes in, such as: I need to check some proofs or the editor wants me to make some changes, I will also shuffle my timetable around a bit for that day to fit everything in.

Where it says ‘Writing’ on the timetable is where I refer to ‘The List’, usually written in priority order. I work my way through ‘The List’, giving myself big ticks when I have achieved what I intended. At the moment, ‘The List’ is only half a side of A4, as I am coming to the end of a project. But, I have another commission lined up and will soon be writing a new list, which could be over five sides long.

* For anyone interested in writing non-fiction could you explain how the process works? Do you approach a publisher with an idea or are you commissioned to do a book?

As I mentioned earlier, educational publishers prefer to come up with their own ideas in-house and then commission authors to do the writing. They send authors a brief outlining their idea. The brief usually consists of word count, type of illustrations and how many, the rationale behind the book, the timescale the author will have to write it, the readership and an idea of the type of content they want included and their in-house style.

Each writer then submits a proposal of what will be included in each chapter (which must incorporate the publisher’s suggestions) and a sample chapter in the in-house style. Often, if it is a series of books, they will be looking for about six writers but, may have asked over twenty people to submit. I have never been turned down yet.

It’s a real buzz when a publisher rings me up, or emails me, and says we've got an idea for a project would you like to submit a proposal to be one of the authors. It really gets me to focus. Before I submit a proposal, I always check out Amazon and see if there is a book on the subject already and if there is it is important to try to think how it could be approached from a new angle that would be relevant to the classroom today. Finding a new slant on an old subject is half the battle.

* How much planning and research goes into a typical non-fiction book and what criteria must be followed? Do you plan your books in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Research is my passion. If I don't know anything on a subject I will spend time finding out about it.

You must follow the publisher’s in-house style. Most will give you very specific outlines of what and what is not appropriate for one of ‘their’ books. This can be very specific and will include vocabulary and in the case of the illustrated non-fiction, it must be suitable for the American market.

I make myself a very detail plan which I will follow. Without this plan I would probably be easily distracted. Usually, things need to go in a specific order to provide the progression and some skills can not be taught until others have been learnt. Even so, saying that a lot of the writing does still happen on the page. I go into my writing trance and it just kind of materialises.

* You’ve recently been appointed as the SCBWI Network Co-ordinator for the London area. For anyone who’s thinking of joining SCBWI what do you think the organisation can offer?

In my opinion, the children's publishing market is very competitive and probably the hardest market to break into, so it makes sense to get all the help you can possibly get.

British SCBWI provide writers with a whole load of opportunities to get published by running critique groups and competitions, organising professional group meetings with agents and editors and providing opportunities to network with other writers, both published and unpublished.

As the SCBWI Network Co-ordinator for the London area, it is my job to organise regular socials in different locations around London. I usually try to find somewhere with a literary theme. So far, we have met at the Royal Festival Hall, the Swan at the Globe, Kensington Gardens and the Mad Bishop and the Bear in Paddington Station.

I invite an honorary guest each time. We have had the pleasure of cavorting with lots of high-profile authors and illustrators, as well as several agents and editors too. It is a great opportunity for networking in an informal setting.

There are lots of Networks within British SCBWI providing events and support all over the UK. Most people reading your blog probably all ready know they can learn a lot by sharing their work in a critique group but, the most difficult thing is to find a group that specialises in writing for children. There are several SCBWI critique groups, some are online and others meet face-to-face on a regular basis. The network coordinators often go out of their way to put children’s writers in touch with other writers for children in their area.

As well as all of the above, there are the Professional Series meetings, which are based in London and allow authors to get a feel for the market - what is hot and what is not. And there are Masterclasses. Oh yes, and there is the annual British SCBWI conference, which always has top-class speakers and workshops, as well as the chance for one-on-one reviews.

SCBWI is an international organisation and I know it sounds like I am pushing it big time but, I really don’t think there is any other organisation that provides so much for children’s writers. The best thing I ever did was join SCBWI. It was a real turning point for me.

* You’re also a member of Network for Information Book Writers and Editors (NIBWEB) and the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), the Society of Authors and the History Association (HA). Could you tell us a little about these organisations and how they can help and support writers?

Nibweb is a group of professional freelance writers who specialise in illustrated non-fiction for young people. We have a forum where we can let off steam and share experiences. I think it is another way of stopping the isolation of writing and being in touch with other writers who write in the same genre is invaluable. It is good to know, I am not alone.

The NAWE keeps you informed of what is happening with writing in the educational market and the Historical Association has a brilliant website that is very useful for researching and planning a history based resource. The Society of Authors is fantastic for keeping you up-to-date with the current market and they also check my contracts for me.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

Honestly, the reason I want to write for children is because I only read children’s books.

When I get the urge to write fiction my natural writing niche seems to be for the 9-12 year age range. I sometimes think I have never grown up. Inside I still feel like I am ten-years old. I know sometimes, to the despair of my friends, I act it.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

As a child, I enjoyed reading Enid Blyton books. I particularly liked the Faraway Tree series and the Secret Seven. I also loved all the Narnia books and have read them several times. As an adult, I have enjoyed Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and Louise Rennison’s Georgia series.

The books I like to read are still a mix of fantasy and humour but, I think maybe the books today have a much faster pace. The children of today have shorter attention spans and the books reflect this.

I had no idea what the children of today want to read so I asked my kids.

My daughter, who is sixteen, reckons the children of today want to read vampire books.

My eight-year-old son said they want to read Roald Dahl and Mr Gum books and promptly took me to see his bookshelf to show me what he is reading at the moment.

My other son and his friends, all of whom are twelve-years-old, reckon the children of today want action and adventure books, like Chris Ryan’s Battleground.

* What’s next for Anita Loughrey? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

At the moment, I am working on a big commission to write a series of six ICT resources for Hopscotch.

I don’t know what’s next after that. I am thinking of a change of direction. I really want to break into the children’s fiction market and all my efforts so far have been half-hearted. I think I need to devote some time and energy to this in order to succeed.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

My words of wisdom:

You can achieve whatever you put your mind to, so don’t give up.

Part of the process is, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, just like Susan Jeffers book says: This includes the fear of becoming a writer.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Thank you, Tracy, for interviewing me about my books and writing process. I hope you and your readers found my answers helpful and inspiring.



Miriam Halahmy said...

I do hope we will be seeing a children's novel from you very soon Anita. I have had the privilege to read some of your fiction and it is very accomplished. Come on! You can do it!!

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Thanks Miri
I have several short stories coming out this year in the Starstruck series. I had so much fun writing them. They are co-written with Steve Rickard under the pseudonym Cathy West and published by Steve's publishing company, Ransom Publishing. He wrote the non-fiction half and I wrote the fiction.

Simon Whaley said...

Like your timetable planning Anita :-) Good work!

Nicky Schmidt (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Waiting to read that children's novel, Anita! C'mon, hurry up! :-)

Candy Gourlay said...

wow, seeing all your books up like that made my head spin! well done! great interview, anita and tracy

Creative said...

A really interesting interview. I'm pleased you're doing so well.

kathryn evans said...

So many books!!! And i bet my kids have been in some of your plays! x

Jackie Marchant said...

Wow, that's a lot of published books! Look forward to seeing you at the next social!

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Thanks everyone,
It still feels a little surreal seeing my interview there with all these brilliant writers. It gives me a real buzz.
Thanks again Tracy for interviewing me. :)

Tracy said...

Thank you for such a great interview, Anita.
I'm going to post some comments left on another messageboard, so you can see them.
Tracy :)

Jennymf said...

Thanks for this I read with interest. I sent off what I thought was a good idea for children, it was part fiction and part non fictin , but educational, it got rejected, but with a very nice letter. I put it away and forgot about it. I do not have any teaching experiance, so may be thats what let me down. I might get it all out again, and have another lok at it. I am also going to look into the SCBWI

Daisy said...

I enjoyed reading that interview. Thanks, Tracy. She sounds like a really interesting author.

Dora said...

Just read your interview with Anita Loughrey Tracy. It was interesting and I found it inspirational, as I've always kept writing non fiction for children in my thoughts.

Had to chuckle as Anita's timetable reminds me a little of my own target achievement lists

Thanks for that Tracy.

Liz said...

Great interview. Love her timetable too! I have one in my head and ignore it.

Claudia said...

Anyone who finds ways to stop losing hours and hours on the internet is a better disciplined person than I!

Loved the interview, Tracy.

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Wow! Thanks Tracy :)

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Popular Posts

The Bookseller