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Publishing First-Time Fiction Over Forty: I Did It, And You Can, Too.
Contributor
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
August 2015
Brainstorming
Contributor
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
August 2015
Brainstorming

SheKnows.com recently asked me to write about being a debut fiction writer over forty -- a distinction that puts me in good company, as Randy Susan Meyers pointed out in this terrific blogpost. I'm sharing it here because I felt it was an especially relevant subject to share with the SheWrites.com community. I know many of our members are women coming to writing later in life. I hope you'll share your stories if this post speaks to you!

Forty is the age after which we are no longer eligible to be up-and-coming (there are no “fifty under fifty” lists), the time in life when we should be well-established in our fields, sitting at the big desk running the show rather than just starting out. If, when I was a little girl in San Antonio, Texas, dreaming of being a writer when I grew up, you had told me that at forty I would be hard at work not on my third or my fourth novel but on my first, I would have wondered what on earth had gone wrong. When you hear “debut novelist” you don’t think “middle-aged,” but I am both, and not afraid to shout it from the rooftops. Here are my five tips for how to write your first book over forty, starting with leveraging the number one advantage someone over forty has in writing a first book: being over forty.

1) Write what you know. We’ve all heard the old adage: write what you know. But as a first-time author over forty, you have a tremendous resource that no twenty-two-year-old debut writer can possibly possess: your life. The experiences and the worlds you have inhabited will provide you with rich material for your writing, and don’t forget that it isn’t just your life that holds untold emotional and narrative riches, it’s the lives of everyone around you, too. For my book, I wrote about a divorced mother of two boys, something I knew well as a mother who’d gone through a divorce. But I also wanted to write about the world of work for women, and for that part of my main character’s life I drew heavily on the experiences of my younger sister, whose career I’ve had a front row seat to witness for more than two decades now. I never could have written my book twenty years ago, and frankly, given the choice between reading a forty-five-year-old’s debut novel and a twenty-five-year-old’s, I’d take my chances on the forty-five-year-old’s any day. (Hello Laura Ingalls Wilder, George Eliot, and Frank McCourt.)

2) Read like a writer. Hopefully, if writing a book interests you, you are already a prodigious reader. (There is no better training for writing than reading.) Reading like a writer, however, is a particular approach. When you begin to read like a writer, you observe how successful writers use structure, rhythm, and point of view, in addition to a whole host of other things you’ll need to make decisions about as you begin your book. Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer is fabulous guide.

3) Don’t rush it. I struggled with this one big time. Being older and writing my first novel, I was in a hurry to get it done—I felt like I had so much catching up to do that I couldn’t afford to dilly dally. But good writing takes time, particularly for a book-length project, and patience and self-forgiveness are key.  I mention self-forgiveness because it’s very likely that the first idea you come up with, or even the first full-length manuscript you complete, won’t be what you publish as your debut. I worked on a novel idea for two years before realizing it was going nowhere and starting Wishful Thinking. I try to look at those years not as a waste but as part of a process, one I had to go through to get where I wanted to go. Reading books about writing can be enormously helpful in providing the perspective you need: I recommend Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Stephen King’s On Writing, two classics of the genre. Please add others you've found helpful to the comments here!

4) Find a writing community. One of the hardest things about writing a book later in life is feeling like a fraud. It’s hard to utter the sentence, “I am a writer” when you don’t yet have a published book to show for it—especially when you are of a certain age. But it's harder still to work in isolation, for hours every day, on something you love, without being able to say “I am a writer” to others who understand and respect what that means. Taking a writing class is a great way to meet other writers who are just starting out, as is attending a writers conference. Online communities like this one, and others like A Room Of Her Own Foundation and the Hedgebrook Writers Colony, are also great places to find support, exchange ideas, and even meet a writing buddy or two.  I also recommend fellow She Writer Lori A. May’s book, The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship And The Writing Life.  Lori emphasizes that new writers need to be generous as they build their networks, supporting other writers not just by taking (advice, tips, etc.), but by giving, too (buying books, attending events, etc.). 

5) Do it for love. The worst reason to write a book is because you want to be able to say you are an author. The best reason to write a book is because you have something to say. If you set out to write because you think once you publish (if you publish), your whole life will change and you will be able to quit your day job, you are going to be disappointed. (The majority of authors considered to be “successful” still don’t make a living at it full-time.) If you can stay focused on your motivation for writing your book, and remind yourself of that motivation with pride when you publish, you’ll tap another asset that over-forty writers bring to the debut author's game: perspective. As I can attest, with my fingers crossed and heart in my throat as I put my first novel out into the world--you’ll need it.

 

Do you have stories to share about publishing later in life? Authors you admire who have done so? I'd love to hear and share in your inspiration!

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Comments
  • Lisa Liddiard

    Wonderful article. I am 53 and I just decided to start taking my writing seriously. I have discovered I love to write for the sake of creating. The best part is I am writing more for myself and less for my future audience. A twenty-something me would have been too focused on pleasing any future readers to truly create something original.

  • Nan, thanks for the info. I'll go out and buy a copy of the current WD and check it out.

  • Anyone seen the Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest? The issue's theme is "It's Never Too Late." Also, two letters in the Reader Mail section are from older writers, one a "great-grandmother" whose first novel was released last year, the other an 83-year-old long-time writer who just published her first short story collection.

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    A couple of people have challenged my view that age is not that important. Let me ask... if you are sitting in a room with  500 young agents who tell you that youth is in, and you are out, will you put away your manuscripts, dash your dreams, ignore your passion, and go type up a thesis for someone else?  If these 500 are in charge... omg that is too much power.

    I hope that a mature piece can be read by anyone without dismissal because "it sounds so "OLD"!  Every lasting culture honors the grandmothers, the elders because of their unique perspective and breadth of experience.

    Now, I must get back to my writing. Mary Ellen Latela  

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    Mary Ellen, Jo Anne (and everyone), the issue of agent representation for older writers came up in a workshop I attended last spring. All the speakers were stressing that agents don't want to represent a book, they want to represent an author with a publishing career ahead of him or her. In the Q&A period, I asked, "Does this mean agents are biased against older writers?" The answer was no, as long as the older writer intends to keep writing and publishing and is willing to do the necessary promotional and platform-building work.

    I admit, I've had to give some thought to this. I'm just winding down from one demanding career; do I really want to start another one as an author, or will I be happier continuing to write and publish in journals and magazines on my own timetable? For now, I've decided to give the book publication route -- and all it involves -- a shot, but only after much soul-searching.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Mary Ellen, Part of the problem is that agents are reluctant to take on older people (women or men) because they might not be around to produce many more books. A one-off book rarely sells much; an author usually needs to build a following, which usually takes at least three, and more often five books, even if they're really good. Just saying...

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    What does age have to do with it? Many of us have been writing since elementary school... publishing took a bit longer! Since ageism in the professions is illegal, why not celebrate where I am, where you are .. in life, whatever that is? I belonged to a support group decades ago and one day we looked around the table and noted that there was a rep from every decade .... 2os, 30s, 40s, etc., through 70s, not counting my 4 year old pre-school daughter, who drew pictures to hand to each lady. Amazing, isn't it, we said .. that we get along so well? It's not so amazing because we had/have a basic respect of one another ...  and we listen carefully, and respond gently, and drink coffee, and reluctantly go home with minds full of new ideas and the affirmation that each of us is valued.  Girlfriends/colleagues/women!  Mary Ellen

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Clearly there is a big cohort of She Writes members who are coming to writing later in life -- I am so glad I shared my story so I could hear more about yours. Let's keep this conversation going!

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    Thanks so much, Kamy, for posting this, and to others in the She Writes community for sharing your experiences and thoughts about later-life writing and publishing. Though I've been writing for a living (as a journalist) for most of my working life, I wanted to change directions with my writing in my 40s to 50s -- to write more personal essays and memoir. As much as I was drawn to doing something that I considered more creative, I was intimidated, and regretted never having had the nerve to take creative writing classes when I was younger. After moping for a little while about missed opportunities, I decided to just pretend I was in my 20s again and be a beginner with plenty of writing years ahead of me and nothing to lose if I took risks with my writing. Just making that mind-shift was liberating! I started going to writers' conferences, reading books on writing and studying writing I admired. I joined a writers' group and started writing a book-length memoir, determined to take as long as I needed to write it and to hone my writing in the process. The book is finished now, and I'm trying to take the same not-too-late for this approach to moving it toward publication. Glad to hear from so many of you who've traveled this path, too!

  • Crystal A. Meinstein

    Dear Kamy,  Thanks for posting this.  I am over forty and have been writing for a long time.  I have started two novels and not finished them earlier in my life.  Now I am writing a third novel and am determined to finish it.  I do think it makes a difference in your writing when you have more life experiences.  I am a wife, mother and grandmother, have lived in four states, worked at various jobs (mostly parttime, my main job as been as a stay at home mom), joined and started writers groups and attended classes, workshops and conferences.  I am a veracious reader and researcher.  I have also learned to deal with writers block and self doubts.  My writing has changed over time.  I have kept a journal since the 7th grade and I certainly notice in my journal how my viewpoints, opinions  and vocabulary have changed.  I would encourage everyone who likes to write to keep writing.  My husband and I recently have written a memoir together and we write blog posts that relate to our memoir.  After about 7 different careers he has found out that he is a writer. In my writers group most of our members are over 50 and we have a few in their 90's.  The sharing of our work and our discussions are amazing and encouraging.  Thanks again for posting this article.  Crystal

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    However, there are some issues that people, particularly women, over sixty care about and identify with, and these are hard to find in this chick-lit era of publishing. Unfortunately, the sobriquet "mature audience" has a totally misleading meaning; it's really aimed at those who never grew up.

    In our culture, older women are particularly marginalized, yet they're the repository of a great deal of wisdom. Their wisdom has often been demonized, as they've been referred to as crones and witches. How about a "wise woman" category of literature? 

    Thanks, SheWrites and SheWrites Press for providing a forum for wise women.

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Don't know where to post this, but I strongly disagree with arranging books by age of the author. There are enough -isms around and ageism is not allowed in the workplace, in the professions. It's the content of the book that counts. The level play field means that whether you are 25 or 85, readers have access to your creations. Don't lump together by age or height or weight or country of origin .... it's not the point! Mary Latela

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Why isn't there a genre for "older people"?

    I like that idea from K. Diann Shope. Maybe we should write to BookBub and Amazon and suggest they create one. What would we call a genre for people over fifty?

  • Elizabeth Brown

     I am in my 60s so the 40s sound like a very early start to me!  I write non-fiction, some memoir, and I really appreciate the self-awareness that this writing brings.  

      

  • K. Diann Shope

    I started writing at 66, and it was a huge surprise that all these stories came zinging through.  I'm writing mostly for and about people over 60, and really enjoying it.  Why isn't there a genre for "older people?"  It's very encouraging to hear all of you talking about your own work and that of your friends who are getting a "late start."  I hope to self-publish my first novel in the next few months.  Another one is finished (YA), and a third is going into it's second revision.  What great fun!

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Kamy, loved your detailed, inspiring piece. One of my dear writing friends and favorite author, Beryl Kingston, started writing novels after she retired from teaching. She is still writing at age 86 and doing extremely well. I love her rich fiction, her fascinating characters. Her latest book which came out last weekend, is really powerful. On Kindle - A Family at War, Beryl Kingston. She can be followed at @berylkingston  and lives in the U.K. 

  • J. Hale Turner

    Thrilled to have read your article.  As a confirmation to what I have shared with other potential writers, I can't wait to share.   Great job!  Keep up the good work!

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Brava, JoAnn Smith Ainsworth! That is truly encouraging. I had been a "closet writer" before retiring, but had only published a few short stories. Since retirement, I've been writing more seriously. However, I've found it essentially impossible to get an agent interested in a seventy-something female, so I've self-published two books - both nonfiction. I'm hoping to be able to publish the next one - a health-care self-help book in the works for five years - with a standard publisher, but I don't know if that will be possible. My co-author is a practicing physician in her sixties. Your story gives me hope!!

  • Rebecca Heflin

    I didn't start writing until I was 47. It became my goal to publish a book by 50. I published two before the Big 5-0. So, it's definitely never too late!

  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing

    Very nice post Kamy. It's good to encourage everyone to keep trying new things, become a life-learner, and totally get rid of other people's stereotypes. I laughed when I first read over forty you can't be labeled an up-and-coming. I started serious writing after fifty! like many others who have responded here. I have a friend who has been writing all her life, and her stories are great, but she never had the confidence and courage to share them. She will be publishing her first novel this month and she is over 70! As long as you are alive, you can make your own tomorrow. Keep writing!

  • JoAnn Smith Ainsworth

    I started writing as I neared retirement. It took me four years to write my first novel. Good writing does take time, but age brings wisdom. I took advice and refined the story until all six manuscripts I wrote were accepted by publishers. I was 68 when the first novel came out. I'll be 77 when my supernatural thriller releases June 2016. Age doesn't matter. Passion for writing does.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Kamy, what a great article, which I can identify with. I wrote my first book Making Dollar$ And Cent$ Out Of Online Dating at age 62. It is a personal journey into the trials and tribulations I have encountered while running a dating site. And writing something that you know first hand is a plus. Reading exposes you to other authors’ writing styles. Since then, I have written 5 more books and two very short stories.

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Great post and all so true; 40,50,60,70... The older the more we have to draw on, and we all know that the most avid fiction readers out there are women 40 and up. And guess who they want to read about! Not 25 year olds, or not too often anyway. And even if we spend our days and nights writing stories no-one will ever read, it is so GOOD for our brains!

  • Jill G. Hall

    Kamy - I agree. It's never too late. I am 60 having my first novel published!

  • Susan Hughes

    An inspiring post, Kami. Until I published my debut novel in the summer, aged 56, I had no idea I wanted to be a writer! I blame the menopause. As the hormones fled, imagination flooded in. Now I find I can't stop. I don't think I could written anything at 20 or even 30. The muse just wasn't there. Certainly I would love it if people read my work but if that doesn't happen, my age and experience helps put it in perspective, as you say. I will keep going trying to improve my writing. I am a bit of a Luddite however and struggle keeping up with the technology that we all need to use these days. Getting a self-hosted blog up and running felt like almost as much of an achievement as writing a novel.