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lies about birds
nothing but the truth
a bit on the side
last updated November 2019
I'm one of those rare things, a full-time writer who earns a living from books. But to do that, I have to write a lot of books.
It's both good fun and hard work. All writers grumble, but we wouldn't really want to be doing anything else instead. In what other job could you spend all day pretending you're a vampire or an alien or lived in the sixteenth century?
Many of the books I write are true. The others are a bunch of lies. But they are true lies. I rarely turn down book commissions because I don't think they will be interesting. I have discovered over the years that almost anything is interesting once you start to find out about it.
"There was never a maundering old woman, sitting with others late of a winter's night at the home fireside, making up tales of Hell, the fates, Ghosts and the like … but did not feel there was a grain of truth in them."
Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, 1360-74
In 2008 I was talking to SB about careers. She said I wasn't qualified to give her advice as my job was "telling lies about an imaginary bird." I claimed I tell the truth about an imaginary bird. She wasn't having it.
The very first stories I wrote were in longer books that each had a story, puzzles, quizzes and some facts. They were about trolls, furbies, mythical beasts and a tooth fairy, and have long been out of print. The next story was about an imaginary bird:
Being scary is fun
That was the beginning of a long and happy relationship with Evans, until they sadly went out of business. During those years, I wrote stories for older children who are not very confident readers, and for young children starting to read.
It was with Evans that I discovered I really like writing dark stories for young teens. I wrote a lot for so-called reluctant readers: young people who have made a late start with learning to read, or who have had difficulty picking up the skill. Commercially, it's a disastrous choice — I write books for people who don't read. Great. But who wants an easy life anyway? Sadly, the opportunities to write these books have almost disappeared. This is not because the books aren't needed, but becaus schools don't have the money to buy them.
Later I wrote younger fiction for Wayland and older fiction for Ransom and ReadZone.
In 2012 Vampire Dawn came out, the first vampire series specifically for young teens who want or need shorter books. Writing these was great fun. Vampires live a long time, right? So all the older vampires were born in earlier times. This means I got to ransack history looking for people I could co-opt as vampires.
The motto at my secondary school was Nihil nisi verum - Nothing if not the truth. So perhaps they are disappointed that I've turned out as someone paid to lie. Not all the time, though. I also write a lot of true books.
There is no good name for books about things that are true. They are often called non-fiction, which just tells you what they're not — not untrue. Some people call them information books, but that doesn't sound very interesting. There are books you go to for information, and there are books that contain information. Arguably, all books contain information, even if it's information about what happens to an imaginary character.
Publishers I work with or have worked with:
Children’s books - Lonely Planet, HarperCollins, Pearson, Hachette, Heinemann, Franklin Watts, Ivy Press, Bounty, Ladybird, Dorling Kindersley, Barrington Stoke, Ransom, ReadZone, Quercus, Miles Kelly, Dynamo, Discovery, Salariya Books, Parragon, Evans, Quarto, Chrysalis, Raintree, Carlton, Gareth Stevens, Facts on File, Discovery, Arcturus, Weldon Owen, World Book, Igloo Books and Marshall Cavendish.
Adult books - OUP, CUP, York Press, Dent, Duckworths, Pearson, Arcturus, Octopus. Most of my adult books now are published with Arcturus.
Books for people who just want information are not that much fun to write. They tend to be text books or how-to manuals. I love to write books for people who are curious, interested, hungry for knowledge — people who will respond with wonder, fascination and excitement to finding out about the world or universe around them. Often, they are young people.
The reason I write about things that are true is that I want to share the wonder I feel when I discover something that makes me think 'Wow! That's so cool!' And one reason I write for children is that they are often much more open to wonder and excitement than adults. A child will see a slug and peer at it, poke the slime, imagine being a slug. An adult will chuck it over the fence to eat someone else's plants. Adults tend to have a pragmatic approach to life and knowledge — what's it good for? I like to catch readers before they develop too much prag. I'm underdeveloped in the prag department myself, so have a certain affinity with them.
I write on animals including dinosaurs, evolution, medicine/the human body, earth sciences, space, new technology, engineering, history, ethics and current culture with my serious hat on. But then there’s a good sprinkling of frivolous topics like mysteries, UFOs, pirates and spying.
The more serious books draw extensively on my varied interests and background, but the most useful thing of all was developing research skills doing my PhD. I use the web, of course, but also Cambridge University Library, the British Library, the Wellcome Institute Library, the Natural History Museum Library and the Medical Library at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. I strongly believe that books for children should be researched with the same rigour and attention to accuracy as books for adults. If anything, writing for children requires more rigour as young people are less likely to challenge the authority of a book than adults. They will believe what they read, and we must endeavour never to betray that trust.
I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of the NUJ and the Society of Authors. I do lots of online stuff which has its own page, and some other odd bits of work including teaching writing. All that's on the other shiz page.
I write because I like to share things (or can't keep quiet, my mum would say), so it's no surprise that I also like to share how to write.
I have been a Royal Literary Fund (RLF) Fellow, starting in 2006. RLF Fellows hold posts in many UK universities. The remit of the fellows is to help students and staff to develop their writing skills. All RLF Fellows are published writers. I have been RLF Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge (2013-15) Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (2006-2008), and at the University of Essex (2010-2011).
From September 2010 to July 2012 I was a Royal Literary Fund Lector, promoting deep and critical reading through weekly reading-aloud groups. In 2010-2011 this was based at Lucy Cavendish College and was for young parents; in October 2011-2012 it was based at U3A, Cambridge, with retired people.
For three years, I was course director of a creative writing course, along with another children's writer, Brian Keaney. We taught (mostly) undergraduate students who are taking an eight-week summer term in Cambridge, based at Pembroke College. They had a weekly lecture, one-to-one supervisions and a few workshops or classes. They worked hard. We worked hard. It was great fun.
Do you want to find out about how I got to be a writer, or what else I do?
>> at home
>> not books