Writing Nonfiction: It’s teamwork … Marvellous Machines

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Writing nonfiction is teamwork as Jane Wilsher author of Marvellous Machines tells us in this blog post

It really is collaborative. Together, the team can create a new book with its own energy.

Often, when I mention to people that I write children’s books, I find myself quickly explaining what I write and how the writing process works – or rather how my writing process works. Usually, it’s not quite what people think. 

I find myself saying, yes, one day I would love to try my hand at fiction, but right now I really enjoy researching and writing non-fiction books, full of often extraordinary facts about how our world works. 

And, yes, sometimes as a children’s non-fiction author I come up with the idea for a book, but much more often, I’m approached and commissioned by an editor, who says there’s a great project that looks up your street, can you fit it in? 

Often, I go on to explain, um, no, for me writing isn’t a lonely experience at all. It’s collaborative, a creative ping pong exchange with the team.

When Patrick, the Managing Editor at What on Earth Books, approached me to write Marvellous Machines, I could tell it was going to be a fun project. What on Earth Books publishes titles with interesting editorial approaches. And I knew that Andrés Lozano would be the illustrator, so the artwork would be energetic, noisy and full of detail.    

It would be the first book in a new series. It’s always exciting to be part of the team that builds the creative template for future books on many subjects. Also, there would be a magic lens attached to the book that revealed secret artworks about the inner working of machines. I would need to think in visual layers about depths of information. With the help of the designer and Patrick, it would be an exacting puzzle to solve.   

Upfront, I must say that I do enjoy the wordsmithery involved, often expressing complicated ideas clearly for children, hopefully with immediacy. But before the writing starts, there’s a phase of creative planning. Sometimes this is a job just for the editor and the in-house team, but I’m grateful to Patrick for including me. 

Now how to describe the process of making a first-in-series non-fiction children’s book? To me, it really is a ping pong of ideas between the editor, designer, author, illustrator and consultant, sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it’s quick then rather stop-start and slow. It’s an ongoing shaggy dog story of trying things out, reviewing and improving. 

From my side, making Marvellous Machines went something like this. 

  • First I researched, then wrote a synopsis with bullet point contents for each page. This was checked by the consultant and fine-tuned by the in-house team. 
  • Then I blocked out sample spreads with draft text and picture ideas – each in layers to show the secret reveals. I submitted my shabby back-of-the-envelope matchstick people layouts, which the designer transformed into impressive first layouts, with type styled into headings and feature boxes, plus doodles for positional artwork. 
  • The book and series approach was really beginning to take shape. A style sheet was emerging. Comments piled in. I submitted more draft text. More first layouts were created, then more rounds of editorial and design comments. Often, I spoke with Patrick on the phone to make sure we were in synch. 
  • Slowly, fabulous illustrations from Andrés – first rough sketches then finished artworks – appeared on the layouts. 
  • Towards the end of the schedule, everyone’s comments become fewer and more specific, until we were all happy. 

And here, I must stress the invaluable role of the consultant. I am enormously grateful to Dr Joseph Corcoran for checking the contents, then the detail of the text, all those specific mechanical editorial and visual nuts and bolts.

Teamwork can be so rewarding, especially with the fantastic team at What on Earth Books. I enjoy thinking visually about words and there’s something magical when the designer and illustrator bring editorial ideas to life on the page. It really is collaborative. Together, the team can create a new book with its own energy. And in the case of Marvellous Machines, we created a book that lets you look under the bonnet of a car and inside the space station. 

This Blog post was written by author Jane Wilsher. MARVELLOUS MACHINES by Jane Wilsher, illustrated by Andrés Lozano is out now in hardback (What on Earth Books) Marvellous Machines: A Magic Lens Book | Just Imagine… (justimaginestorycentre.co.uk)

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