So you want to be an author?

Tonight I’m attending the Monmouth Comprehensive School Careers and Higher Education Fair and I’m thinking what to say to the students that ask me for advice about becoming an author.

It’s actually quite hard to give advice, as there is no career structure for authors and the internet is changing all our futures rapidly.

Being an author is the ultimate one person business. Everything is conjured out of your thought processes. Think of JK Rowling, sitting in her fabled cafe, writing Harry Potter in exercise books. Most people watching her at that time would have thought she was a bit of a loser with ideas above her station, scribbling away all day. “Why doesn’t she get a proper job?” They probably muttered under their breath. And now? Not only is she a multi-millionaire, she has made many other people millionaires too, and provided a living for thousands of others – all from a single, simple idea that grew in her head.

Authors are the ultimate manufacturers, creating something from absolutely nothing.

I think writers are a slightly different breed. Writers love to write and are very good at distilling ideas and concepts into words. The words don’t have to be clear or understandable to everyone, in fact some writers like to be cryptic, but they love playing with words and would carry on writing even if you stopped paying them.

And then there are story tellers. They just love to tell stories and can find a story to tell in any subject they investigate. At heart, they are teachers. Stories are how humans learn, so stories usually have some insight or piece of knowledge to impart.

If you can work out what you are, it might help you decide what to do next.

If you are a writer, then maybe a writing course would be good for you. There is always a worry that you might be over-influenced by your teachers and adopt their style, but if their style is in fashion or you have great teachers, you will be okay. You will learn all the tricks of the trade (literally, as you will have the arcane workings of the publishing world taught to you as well as the skills of writing.) All I would say is that if you have ideas of being famous, then what you want is an original voice. It is possible that your fellow students will all graduate from the same place as you, with the same voice as you. If you can write clearly and well, that is skill you can take with you into advertising, marketing TV film and the Internet. These industries are hungry for content.

If you are a storyteller, then it is ingrained in your DNA. I should follow your interests. Study science, history, geography, art – whatever it is that gets you going, after all, you will need something to tell stories about. The only worry here is that academia has come to hate story writing. Nowadays, written academic work requires the most bland delivery, so that marks can easily be given to facts.

Always remember that the real world needs to understand your subject and the real world will always welcome those who can explain the complicated in exciting and colourful ways and is prepared to pay them well. So keep writing for yourself and keep learning about the art of writing and storytelling in your own time while you become an expert in your chosen field.

And then there are the authors. Hmm…

You cannot write something great without any life experience, so that is what you need. My advice is usually to go and work on a sheep farm in Australia, or an oil rig in Outer Mongolia. That way you will get paid while you gather life experience. There are no courses for authors. There is no career path. Authors are single-minded thinking machines. The ultimate one person businesses.

But single-minded does not mean bull-headed. If you want to be rich and famous, you need to experience what the multitude do, but on a higher plane, and reflect it back to them. Yes, work on your writing technique, but better work on your people skills. Many of the best-selling books come down to the editor and the marketing team. Being an author is a lonely business. No one can experience life for you nor can they have the ideas for you. That is your particular gift. But you will need a team to help you turn your idea into that best-selling book and if you can work well with that team, your book will have a better chance in the long run.

The perfect combination is an author who is a storyteller and a writer – someone with drive, determination and enthusiasm. No one is going to stand over you and make you write. The first draft is entirely up to you. I feel that anyone with that combination will have such a strength of thought and character that they will succeed whatever they choose to do.

BUT – always think about those people skills. Being an author, working on your own a lot, can make you depressed and insular. Make sure you get out and talk to real people and experience the world that your readers live in every day, after all, that’s where you will find the ideas that you will turn into nuggets of gold.