How To Become An Author (Or My Job And Other Animals)

How do you become an author?  This is one of the questions I am asked a lot and I never really know what to say. I didn’t study for a vocational qualification like a doctor or a plumber. I didn’t study Plot Knots or Character Alchemy, nobody handed me a certificate stating ‘Author’ and yet somehow, here I am.

I could give you the exact directions to this point but even if you followed them to the letter, I suspect you might end up somewhere else because fate’s fickle like that. I’m not  one of those ‘start after breakfast, 1000 words by lunch’ sorts. I don’t even write every day. Naturally I work like fury on occasion but it’s all rather freeform for the rest of the time. However I’m coming to believe that these casual tendencies may be a blessing, my relaxed door policy letting all manner of useful ideas wander in.

What I can say for certain is that before I was an author I was a writer, and before that I was a storyteller with a small ‘s’. In fact, I’m a storyteller from a long line of storytellers. They would probably be surprised to hear themselves described in this way. Some of these storytellers could write and some could not. Some left school when they were still children and had never read anything but bits of the Bible.  By today’s educational measuring-stick they would undoubtedly be deemed literacy casualties, but I owe them a debt of gratitude.

Interestingly Aborigines, architects of the Dreamtime, don’t have a word for artist, creativity being seen as a fundamental part of the human condition. Describing someone as an artist would be as odd as describing them as ‘a breather’. Reading ability aside, we are all full of stories; fertile gardens filled with seeds, waiting for the sun and rain of encouragement. My own story garden is full of life but I’m very lucky because there’s always been a lot of weather going on in there.

Of course, if you like books then you carry the golden keys. But just about everyone, regardless of literacy levels, has stories to tell; tales of mad relatives or funny animals or beautiful places, stories of love and loss, stories of the past and hopes for the future. Stories enable us to empathise, to understand, to predict consequences. They teach us how to conduct attention, to thrill and dismay. Quite simply they are records of who we are and how we got here.

‘This is all very well Claire, but how do I become an author?’

Oh yes. Well, the answer is you can’t handle lions until you can swim like a dolphin, and the water’s going to be a nightmare if you haven’t sorted out the baby bird.

‘Pardon?’

In order to dissect the reverse order stages of the author journey I turned them into metaphorical animals because…well…because I am a children’s author. Bear with me (see what I did there?)

The Lion

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To my mind being a published author is a bit like being a lion. This part is about making decisions and social media noise. It’s the business end of the chain, involving tax, diaries, publicity, deadlines and negotiations. It’s exciting, time-ravenous and impressive. Lions make it their job to be noticed, which is probably why the initial question arises in the first place. Remember: Always be nice with your teeth.

The Dolphin

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Being a writer is like being a dolphin; crafting dynamic plot lines that race and flow in harmony, creating prose full of leaps and splashes, constructing scenes that plunge the reader down into the emotional depths before hauling them back blinking into the sunlight. The finished style must look effortless to the reader (it’s not).If you’re very lucky you get to work with lots of other nimble, friendly dolphins called Agents and Editors.

The Baby Muse-Bird

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This is the baby muse-bird.  Ask any author and they will tell you that the hatching of The Idea is where the first magic lies.  This shiny-eyed chick unfurling its damp wings, flapping into life might not look as impressive as the lion, and it certainly isn’t as lissom as the dolphin, but it’s a precious thing from which all future work flows. Raising these little muse-birds is the answer, for you cannot go straight to lion without first passing dolphin and chick. The first question should not be how do I become an author? or even how do I become a writer? but how do I become a storyteller?

‘Ok, how DO I become a storyteller?’

You’re human, right? Well then, you already are a storyteller, but maybe you need to go further and pursue that ‘open door’ ideas policy. You might be dreaming at the bus stop, or gazing at the trees or tying your shoelace when a little flash of life unexpectedly appears: Cheep! Are you listening? I’m ready to begin. So listen because, sure as eggs are eggs, it will die without love and attention. Perch it on your finger and, instead of worrying about its fragility, marvel at its wings.

You never know, the odd rare bird might even take you all the way to the bookshelves.

Claire Barker is the internationally published, award winning author of the critically acclaimed ‘Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog’ series (Bio courtesy of The Lion)