Antony Mason has written a total of eighty five books, on subjects ranging from travel to history, current affairs to humour. As well as writing books, Antony translates books from French, writes website copy and has worked as a tutor in writing at Goldsmiths College. Another exciting fact about Antony is that he is a regular World Book Night giver.
We talked to Antony about what it's like being a travel/non-fiction writer, and got some advice for Reading Activists who are thinking about a writing career in the future.
What does a day in the life of a travel/non-fiction writer look like?
Whenever asked "What book would you most like to have written?" I say The Meaning of Liff, by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, a hilarious "dictionary of things there should be words for". It includes the imaginary definition of Farnham: "The feeling you get about four o'clock in the afternoon when you haven't got enough done." That is just about how my day works.
Non-fiction writing is about gathering information, getting on top of a subject, then writing about it in a way that going to make sense to your readers - in a way that will fascinate and enthral them. Unfortunately, too often I find the information fascinating and enthralling and reach four o'clock without having actually written anything that anyone will give me money for. That's why I need a deadline for delivering work, and the thought of an editor who will be cross if I don't.
What advice would you give to any aspiring young writers?
Sit down and get it started. Say to yourself: "I'll just give it 10 minutes to see if I can start the idea off." Don't wait for a day of inspiration, or a clear morning or afternoon: they never come along, or only rarely. It's strange how, once you've started, you'll continue longer than you ever thought. Your text won't come out perfect first time. You're a sculptor: hack out the rough shape first. You can refine it later. Good writers know that an essential part of the process is correcting and editing, cutting and reshaping. But you need that rough shape (the 'first draft') to start off with. Once you've got that, you're on your way.
With non-fiction writing you've got to know your subject. You do your reading and research to a point when you know you're ready to write - which probably means knowing just a bit more than you are actually going to use. But it's easy to make the mistake of over-researching. It'll be four o'clock before you know it!
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer and how did you set about pursuing this goal?
I used to write stories when I was small. Aged six, maybe? They never came to anything, but I remember the thrill of inventing characters and moving them around imaginary places, making them interact with speech, and evoking a mood. Much later, I worked in book publishing as an editor. When I decided to work for myself as a freelance editor, I took on any writing jobs that were offered. That was mainly in illustrated children's books on history, art and geography - where the skill of writing and editing are similar. I also wrote a number of travel guides, on Bali and Belgium - for which, of course, I had to travel. Just about all of these books were commissioned by publishers: their editors came to me with the ideas, rather than the other way round. I think I have written 85 books now. That may seem a lot, but I have been doing this for over 25 years.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about the job?
There is a real pleasure in making things, in a job. So, long after the hard work, late nights, the panic of missed deadlines, I get sent the printed book. I look through it and think: "I did that... and it's quite good." I may even get someone telling me that too (but actually the usual public response to my books is a deafening silence). And every now and then I'll spot a mistake in my own book - or someone else will. And now it's in print, for ever, and I can't really look at the book without thinking about that mistake - although it might be four words out of 40,000. That's why I am a bit of an obsessive perfectionist, checking my text, checking proofs, before the book goes to print. It's not comfortable, but I like to think that this attention to detail is what keeps me in work.
What three things would you take to a desert island and why?
1. Pencils and paper. I don't need a computer to write.
2. Mask and snorkel. The undersea world is a glittering stage-set for a drama that has been played out for millions of years with almost no interaction with humans. It's refreshing to feel utterly irrelevant.
3. The Deeper Meaning of Liff (or the extended version, The Deeper Meaning of Liff). I love that book!
Read more of the articles in our 'a day in the life of' series. We've been getting tips from professionals in lots of creative industries including a journalist, a book designer, an Eastenders script writer and an author.
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