Brian Clegg is a highly prolific author of 68 fiction and non-fiction books. Yep, you heard me, 68 – and counting. Now one of the world’s top popular-science writers, Clegg first cut his teeth in journalism after a corporate career. We interview him about his motivations, his writing process and how he keeps going.
Q: How do you approach writing multiple genres?
Brian Clegg: I’d really break them down into three genres as I started writing business books then shifted to the much more satisfying field of popular science, but have always written fiction for fun. I’ve so far had 24 business books and 33 popular science books published (with several more at different stages of production). I’ve written a total of 11 novels, some of which will never see the light of day, but 5 of them – detective novels – I’ve self-published.
There’s a big difference as the science books are how I earn my living, where the fiction is for fun. This means that science has the first claim on my time, while fiction I write when things are slack. I probably write four science titles to each fiction book. (I’ve got two novels on the go at the moment, one crime and the other fantasy, so they’re fighting for my attention.) They are such different disciplines, the only interaction I’d say is that both depend on having a good narrative.
When I’m acting as series editor, one of the biggest messages I often have to give to less experienced non-fiction writers is that it’s still about storytelling. You will never keep a reader’s attention with a collection of facts alone: that’s just bullet points, not writing.
Q: Which book are you most proud of any why?
Brian Clegg: It’s like asking someone which is their favourite child – it’s genuinely impossible to say. Some stand out to me for different reasons – for example, Brief History of Infinity is my best selling title, The Reality Frame in my opinion is the meatiest book I’ve written and Enigma, coming out this November, was by far the most fun to write (and the hardest work to edit).
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Q: What number book are you working on right now and can you tell us more about it?
Brian Clegg: I’m working on popular science books numbers 36 and 37.
The first I’ve already mentioned, Enigma, which has 20 sections each with 10 themed puzzles, often involving codes and ciphers, ranging from the trivial to ones requiring some serious lateral thinking.
To make it more interesting, there’ll be a prize for the first person to complete it. At the same time I’m just finishing a scientific biography of James Clerk Maxwell, the greatest physicist most people know nothing about, which will come out next year.
A: Did you consciously decide to be a prolific author?
Brian Clegg: I’ve always written, since childhood – stories, comics, attempts at novels. For ages it was something I just did in my spare time, but I was asked to write something for an IT magazine and realised it was a way to combine what I enjoyed doing and making some money – and it has gradually taken over my life.
After that first piece I ended up writing regularly for an IT weekly, which got me into a strongly deadline-oriented approach. I enjoy writing, but it is a business – I sit down and write when it’s time to write, rather than waiting for the muse.
So I have to write (when I’m not writing books I review them and blog about them), I enjoy it and people seem to like the result, which itself is very rewarding.
Q: What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
Brian Clegg: One essential for me is having more than one book on the go at once. Typically I’ll have at least three – one at the early stages, one being written and one being edited. I might enjoy writing, but it’s easy to get bored if you do the same thing all day. I typically divide my time up in chunks with an hour or two at a time on books, interspersed with emails, keeping up with social media, going for a walk and so on.
Variety is an essential for writing well and prolifically as far as I am concerned. I write in silence – I can do admin to music, but I like quiet when I write. I can in principle write anywhere – I quite often write on train journeys using an iPad with a keyboard – but that’s limited to what you might call ‘top of the head’ writing.
For serious science writing I prefer my full desktop setup, which has plenty of screen space to have various documents open simultaneously.
Q: How has your writing practice changed over the years?
Brian Clegg: My very first book was a business book written jointly with a colleague. We put it together without much thought of how it was going to be structured, sent it off to the publisher and were horrified when they sent it back saying ‘Fix it or give us our money back (all of £150 each).’ That was a big lesson in making sure the structure works well and I now put a lot of effort into getting the outline right before writing non-fiction. It’s painful to do, but absolutely essential.
The other big thing, I think was what prompted the move from business to science books. I was writing business books primarily as a way of making money. I moved to science books as it was a topic I loved. I think I write a lot better science books than business books because of this (and, incidentally, as a result make more financially than I did from the business books).
Q: What tip would you pass on to anyone wanting to match your level of productivity?
Brian Clegg: I think writing comes more naturally to some people than others – anyone can get better at it, but it helps to have that natural urge, which I certainly do have.
Time management is crucial. It’s the old ‘eating an elephant’ thing – it seems impossible, but you can do it if you break it up into appropriate chunks.
So, writing in blocks of time, but getting away from it regularly too. It’s not essential to love your topic – I was pretty prolific on the business book side – but it makes it so much easier, so it’s ideal if you can bring something you love to your writing. And be prepared to step back and get an overview first rather than try to plunge in and write.
Q: Have you ever been blocked on a project and if so, how did you ‘unblock’ yourself?
Brian Clegg: To be honest, no. There are days when I feel ‘I really don’t want to work on that today,’ and because I have several projects on the go, that’s fine. I can put something aside until it feels fresher. But an absolute blockage, never. I think in part it’s because I’m happy to write whatever. It may be rubbish and need removing or radical changes – but that’s what editing is for. Write something, anything and a block is unlikely to occur.
Q: Describe your writing space – where do you typically write and do these locations ever change?
Brian Clegg: I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated office with enough space to have a few books open on my desk and a pair of big screens so I can have several virtual documents open simultaneously.
I use a Mac rather than Windows – I converted 7 years ago after using Windows since the late 80s, and it just makes using a computer a better experience.
There’s plenty of clutter – I’m with Einstein on ‘an empty desk is a sign of an empty mind.’ And there is inevitably a coffee cup (and probably a few biscuit crumbs) around. The French windows onto the garden are behind me – there’s a blank wall in front, so no distractions – but I can turn round when I want for relief.