How did you get that job?
I was lucky – I became a writer by just applying for a job as a trainee children’s non-fiction writer with Usborne Publishing. I had a degree in English and a small amount of proofreading experience. I got the job, and worked there for three years. Usborne trained me in all aspects of non-fiction writing and editing. Then I went freelance so I could move to Scotland.
Do you draw the pictures too?
No – and this really is a frequently asked question. I write the text, then a designer lays out the text and decides on the pictures. If we’re using artwork (rather than photos), an artist does the pictures. If we’re using photos, I sometimes get to choose the ones I like from online picture libraries. My favourite is the Science Photo Library.
How do you manage being on your own at home all day? How do you motivate yourself?
Everyone asks this, but I love being at home alone all day – it’s just a personality thing. If you like being around people all the time, you probably shouldn’t think about doing this kind of job. However, I do talk to friends and colleagues on the phone several times a day and do a lot of emailing. About the motivation – since I don’t get paid if I don’t work, I have to work! Also, I enjoy my work a lot, so it’s not too difficult.
How can I become a writer?
My advice for aspiring writers is to read as much as you can, and, if you have time, write a diary every day. Keep your diaries, as well as any stories, poems or essays you write, in a big box and they’ll be useful later. Try to get involved in writing for a school or college newspaper or local newspaper. (I was too shy to do this and I missed out.) It’s hard to start being a freelance writer straight away, so maybe look for a job in journalism, publishing, PR or advertising first.
If you’re starting as an adult and are working in another field such as teaching, read a lot in the field you’d like to work in – such as children’s books, popular science or whatever – and write as much as you can in your spare time. Join or start a writing group or class – this is good because it forces you to have something ready each time. There is lots of support on the web and in the form of books and magazines. Try MsLexia (for women writers), WritersWeekly.com, and Google’s Writers’ Resources page, and get the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (at Amazon.co.uk), or in the US, Writer’s Market (from Amazon.com).
What’s your favourite book?
My favourite book of all is Roget’s Thesaurus, a book that tells you how to find another word for a word you’ve thought of. It’s very useful for writers and also hilarious to read. You can visit a very good online thesaurus here. I don’t have a favourite fiction book as it changes all the time, but some of my current and all-time favourite authors are Arnold Lobel, Joan Aiken, Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman. I also love some much older books such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Macbeth by Shakespeare, and the Old English legend Beowulf.
What’s your favourite book that you’ve written?
My favourites include The Story of Inventions and The World of Shakespeare (both Usborne), 100 Most Dangerous Things on the Planet and the others in the series (A&C Black), and the new Animals on the Edge series.
What’s your best ever review?
I love this one from New Scientist: “Usborne’s… Computer Dictionary for Beginners is excellent… the book squeezes an incredible amount of useful stuff into its 64 illustrated pages. Books of this quality demonstrate that, in the right hands, information itself can inspire.”
Why do you live in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh is a great place to live – it’s small and easy to get around, yet it’s a busy capital city; it’s amazingly beautiful; it’s not too expensive to live in the centre of town; and there’s a lot going on. I do work with several London publishers though, so I go to London regularly for meetings.
Do you really work in a sleeping bag?
This FAQ appears by popular request. Yes, I sit at my desk at home inside a special sleeping bag with arm holes, and I would recommend it to anyone. It means you can be warm without having to heat the whole house, and it gives you a nice cosy feeling, as if you’re working in bed.