From brief to book - trials of a non-fiction writer

By Claudia Myatt

Fiction writers work inside out – from idea to story to pitch to publication.  Non fiction writers usually work the other way round, from an idea that starts inside a publisher’s head.  You have to get inside the subject, make it your own, learn about it and make it fun. 
Early last year I was asked by my publisher to write and illustrate a book for children about looking after the marine environment. My reply of “er… not sure about that…..” was taken as enthusiastic consent.   By autumn I had been given a title, a brief and a lovely marine biologist as consultant.  “Start with the origins of the earth”, they said.  Of course.  Good idea.  I was just about to suggest that myself.

This sketch book page shows the messy way it all started, trying to draw and write my way into the unknown and give it some shape and structure.  I’ll gloss over the struggles of the next nine months.  You know the kind of thing - long hours, research, sharpening of pencils, self-doubt, redrawing, rewriting, whingeing on facebook and heavy dependence on Google.  Editor Susie made encouraging noises amongst her corrections, publisher Phil left me in peace apart from occasional emails saying, “I’m glad you’re enjoying this book”.  

Enjoying wasn’t the word that sprung to mind, but as each chapter was complete and each tricky subject tackled I became more comfortable with it.  It wasn’t their project any more, it was mine.  I was getting used to drawing fish, albatross and sea defences and came up with a joke for every page - more or less.  I found out more than I ever wanted to about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the time that single use plastic takes to decay.  I glared at people who bought cellophane wrapped bananas in the supermarket and found marine conservation groups to join. 

By September it was done, and the book is finally in my hands.  I can’t bear to look too closely at it though – far too worried about finding mistakes.

There’s a nice preview piece on though the cover design has changed in the process.

One of these days I'd like to write and illustrate a book from the inside out - there are plenty of ideas lurking in the back of my head, though they always get put to one side when a 'real' job comes along.  Though that would mean pitching to a publisher which looks about as comfortable as jumping out of a plane without a parachute.  One day, perhaps!


  1. Congratulations Claudia. It seems you took the idea and formed it into your own beautiful product. And of course... that was what the publisher knew you were capable of. We seldom realise what we can achieve until it is done! Then all the stress and anxiety can be put aside.

  2. Amazing work Claudia, I can see why they chose you for the project, you really have an understanding of the sea.
    It's great how you made it your own project.

  3. Good stuff Claudia. We can read between the lines that it was a struggle as well as pleasure but that's what makes it a success in the end.
    What's your next project by the way, as long as this book or a quicker shorter commission?

  4. I like the way you talk about the process of making the project yours, and love the surface of that sea on your cover and the light in the last pic.
    Only I'd say from my experience at least, is that you don't need to think of pitching to a publisher in the way you say. I see it more like unearthing the few whose books you like who may be able to give you some feedback - it's not so different. Who knows, it could start with a friendly email after a conference or workshop, not necessarily a jump into the void!
    That said, I'm learning patience with my own projects too, despite having been author illustrator of my first books. Illustrating other people's ideas, ain't ever quite the same and it can get in the way of your own... Good luck with the launch!

  5. Thanks, Bridget, that's much appreciated. I need to think of working on my own ideas as a logical progression rather than starting from scratch! Paddle in from the shallow end rather than a dive off the top board, kind of thing...

  6. The ideas as initiated herein would possibly help students to proceed with all those values. rephrasing sentences online


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.