SHERRYL CLARK INTERVIEWS DIANA LAWRENSON
It has to be a subject that interests me and makes me want to find out more – heaps more – about it. And it must have a wide range of visual aspects.
A small tour behind the scenes at The Australian Ballet was what made me want to write Inside The Australian Ballet. Although I’d never been particularly interested in ballet and had never had any ballet lessons, I was blown away by what I saw – and kept asking questions.
A similar thing happened with Guide Dogs from puppies to partners. My daughter has an intellectual disability and we’d acquired a companion dog for her from Guide Dogs, Victoria. Felix had been retired early after guiding for four years. His intelligent and protective behaviour at our home made me wonder what he’d had to learn and how he’d been trained.
So in neither case did I sit down and think, ‘Now, what can I write a non-fiction book about?’ They evolved out of my own curiosity generated through personal contact. Since then I’ve had to think up topics for other non-fiction books (not picture book style), and those titles have come from trawling my mind for topics that interest me. Your own interest transmits itself on to the page.
My first step is to establish there aren’t already a lot of books on the topic in the marketplace. A search on Amazon is a good way to start, and sometimes a library has allowed me to look through ‘Global Books in Print’ if they have a disc. Then I look at the published books (if there are any) in bookshops or libraries, to determine how mine will differ. For instance, there were a number of books about ballet when I was working out a proposal for my one, but there were none for young people about The Australian Ballet. I thought I’d have no problems, but a publisher returned the proposal asking if I was aware that an English title covering similar topics had just come out. In disappointment, I hot-footed it down to the local bookshop and leafed though a copy. I saw that my book would cover more than the English one. And the bookseller said if mine was going to have photographs it would suit an older age-group and be far more realistic than the English title that had only drawings. Hurrah! I had my ammunition.
Where my books have been about specific organisations, my next step has been to obtain their current annual report. An Annual Report makes surprisingly interesting reading (as long as you’re interested in the topic), and provides all sorts of information that’s not on the internet – information that has helped me structure a book by letting me see the various facets of the organisation that I may not have thought of.
At this stage I do a draft outline of the topics I’d like to cover, and then contact the organisation to establish their interest and willingness to participate in the project. I’ve contacted four organisations, and each experience has been different. One was encouraging from the start. One was discouraging (because they said they were tired of being contacted by writers, but when they read my proposal they invited me in to discuss it further. A third was willing but the publisher wasn’t keen on the topic, and the fourth rejected the idea of a book.
Once an organisation expresses interest in the proposal, I then send the proposal to the publisher, complete with a list of differences between mine and existing titles. By now I will have done a certain amount of research that I hope is going to whet the publisher’s appetite. It’s more than likely I’ll have found out a few facts that have surprised me as well as other people – a good indicator for holding a reader’s interest.
2. What kind of research do you do? How? Where?
I do phone or face-to-face interviews with people who are directly involved and then look at the work they do or see them in action. Providing I can find a reliable source, I’ll use the Net, and I go through books at the State and local libraries. I do a lot of cross-referencing to check facts, and where people have been interviewed I send them copies of what I’ve written to ensure they’re satisfied it’s correct.
3. What about illustrations and photos? Do you have responsibility for these in any way?
I established that The Australian Ballet and Guide Dogs Victoria would seek permission from their photographers to allow the use of their pictures in the books. After the editor and I selected a range of photographs from archives to match the text, the organisations then had to approve their use e.g. guide dogs at work, and dancers had to be in correct positions. Where photographs of particular subject matter in the text were non-existent, photographers were engaged specifically by one of the companies and by the publisher. I went with a photographer to two of the shoots to ensure the pictures would match the text. After all that, it’s the designer’s job to choose which pictures to place where on the pages. Contouring photos can help a title look less like a text book.
4. What age group are you aiming at? How does this affect word choice and sentence structure?
My non-fiction books are aimed at middle primary to lower secondary. I keep the sentences fairly short and mostly in active voice, and might resort to the thesaurus for a simpler word. I don’t work from any word list. Sometimes an editor will rephrase what I’ve written and I’ll wonder why on earth I didn’t think of the changed words myself.
5. How do you structure your information? Do you try to tell a story? Or do you approach it in a more "formal" way?
It depends on the book. In the Ballet and Guide Dog books it made sense to have a broad introduction and then start from the beginning with spreads sub-titled Once a Dancer Joins, and Breeding. Further spreads take readers up to a ballet performance on stage and a guide dog at work, before winding down with topics that are integral to the companies but not so riveting. I structure the information to be either single page or double spread, in the order I want.
Non-fiction can be approached in a fun way, too, rather than the more usual straight and serious. The It’s True! series of quirky and amusing, yet accurate, books start with attention-grabbing information to capture children’s interest. A forensic scientist’s detective work on a skeleton found in the bush is much more intriguing than osteoporosis which is addressed later in It’s True! Your Bones are stronger than Concrete. Corny sub-headings lead into some serious topics, camouflaged further by the humorous style of writing. The comical pen and ink cartoons and captions add to the spirit of the books. It’s sugar-coated serious stuff, with the added benefit of benign sugar.
I also like non-fiction teetering at the edge of early childhood fiction in a harmonious but non-intrusive way. My two fiction picture books each have a page of facts at the end that extends their interest and provides answers for curly questions children might ask. Until I wrote Pickle the perfectly awful pig I had no idea a piglet’s gestation period is three months, three weeks and three days. And it was only after doing some research while writing Paraphernalia’s Present that I discovered why broody hens turn their eggs.
6. Do you work on any aspects of page design (placing of text and illustrations)?
I’m told how long a book is going to be: 32, 40, or 96 pages, and work according to that in single/double spreads, or in chapters. I have no say in how or where the text or pictures will be placed, but have been fortunate in having editors who’ve listened to my comments and acted on some of them. I’ve listened to them, too, and that’s part of the collaboration that occurs in publishing a book. One editor took me to see one of my books being designed which helped me understand what the designer does.
7. Do you think there is a growing market for non-fiction picture books in Australia? Or is non-fiction still mainly aimed at schools and libraries?
That’s probably a question publishers could answer better than I. I write all my books with children and their enjoyment in mind, not schools, not curricula, not teachers – even though my titles end up in school and public libraries as well as bookshops. I’d like to think there’s a growing market for non-fiction picture books in Australia. Nothing compares with the ease and joy of turning pages backwards and forwards on your own and at your own pace, allowing you to reflect on an entire page instead of a portion of a page on a screen. When you’re passionate about a subject there’s nothing like having plenty of time to curl up with a book devoted to it and sink into a reverie triggered by what’s on the pages, or perhaps think, ‘Cool! I didn’t know that!’
The Net has become a widely-used medium. But books can go into detail that often isn’t shown on the Net, or is on it in fragments on several different sites. And some sites aren’t reliable. Good non-fiction books aren’t afraid to list their sources. Still, material on the Net is easy to access at home or at school and publishers recognise this. My two It’s True! titles are available both in hard copy and as ebooks.
Diana Lawrenson’s books:
Paraphernalia’s Present (ABC Books, 3 – 7 years)
It’s True! Your Bones are Stronger than Concrete (Allen & Unwin, 8 – 12 years)
It’s True! Your Hair Grows 15 Kilometres a Year, Allen & Unwin, 8 – 12 years
Guide Dogs from puppies to partners (Allen & Unwin, 8 – 12 years)
Inside The Australian Ballet (Allen & Unwin, 8 years +)
Pickle the perfectly awful pig (ABC Books, 3 – 7 years)