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

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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  • Thea Constantine

    Let's hear it for the late-bloomers! I too am an over forty writer with quite a few friends in that category too. My mother who's always been a role model got her MFA in poetry at 75. I always think there should be awards and scholarships for women like us. The quality of 'what we know' after forty is truly amazing. Not to knock young writers--they're always inspiring, but I'm loving seeing your post and all the comments.......

  • Kay Mehl Miller

    I published my first book at 67 and since then have published two more.  I'm now 81. Kamy, you show much wisdom in your post. Love your work, I say, and when agents and book publishers reject you, publish and market your book yourself.  If you have something worthwhile to share, your grateful readers will let you know. You are an author. Your words make a difference. Be proud.

  • Nice post, Kamy. I also like the list of folks who published in their 50s and 60s...whew! My first book was published last year - when I was 56. I am at work on books 2 and 3 now and I have the support of this community to thank for it. As Liz said, your tips are "spot on"--I think it helps other writers to know that they're not the only pebble on the beach. Thanks!

  • Rebecca Meredith

    I'm delighted to read this affirmation of the debut writer of "a certain age." I published my first novel at 56, have met with some success, an at work on my second with a third in the research phase. I'm also a Hedgebrook alum and can attest to the remarkable support of that fine place. For a while I thought you were doomed if your "writer platform" wasn't one of being a prodigy, someone young and fresh. At this point I absolutely agree that we older women have depth and perspective that is ideal for bringing stories into the world. We come from a long line of "Old Wives," the wise midwives and healers who knew everybody's stories. I suggest we all lean in and tell some Old Wives Tales, with relish!

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Kamy, awesome post! I started writing my first novel at 47, and published it with SWP at last year at 51. Two more have come out since then, and three more are in production for 2016. I never wanted to be an author, but somehow it picked me...hard. Your tips are so spot on. I feel honored to be in such good company with you, and all of the lovely ladies who commented! I hope others find inspiration in our stories. It truly is never too late!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your stories -- I am more inspired than ever having read them. So many great additions to the topic in this thread: your personal stories; more great writers who debuted later in life; honest reflections on the fear of not being taken seriously as a writer when you haven't published much or have only published a little (my mentor Diane Middlebrook straightened me out on that score); more books on writing to add to your lists; and Julie Lawson Timmer's sage lessons learned as a (very) successful forty-something debut novelists. Such a rich response, as always. I love this community. :)

  • A. Michelle Navarro

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I, too, am in my 40's and put my self out there and submitted a story for publication and it was accepted.  Congratulations!

  • Patricia A. Watts

    Kamy, thank you for echoing my thoughts. I wrote my first novel at 51. My second, WATCHDOGS, was published by She Writes Press. I've now completed my third novel and am seeking an agent. I've noticed that most agents appear to be VERY young. Does anyone know of literary agents who are mature or a small press that focuses on older writers?
    --Patricia Watts

  • Susan Wenzel

    Thank you for this article.  I'm 46 and started a novel length semi-semi-biographical (I wrote what I know) work of fiction four years ago.  I couldn't, at first, believe I was able to finish it (a feat in and of itself), but I did and am pleased with the finished product.  I have been, since then, looking for representation (sporadically, as I am easily discouraged even though I strongly believe in the work and the subject matter).  I have read and reread On Writing.  My new house came with a cozy home office that even has a built in desk and a comfy office chair.  I attended a few writing conferences (including auditing seminars at the Whidbey Writers Workshop and briefly entertained working on a Master's through NIILA) and am signed up for another in October. I've networked with local writers and joined, for a while, a local writing group (but didn't feel I fit into the niche).  I took a six month copyediting/proofreading certification course at University of Washington in an effort to refine my writing and wrote for a magazine for a couple years.  Gosh...I even live on Whidbey Island and have visited the magical place known as Hedgebrook (and wrote an article about them)!  I am confident that my turn will come someday...this article gives me even more hope.    

  • Lois Heise

    Thank you for this post! I have been writing a book about being the wife of a small business owner for the last few years. It's about working and living with someone 24/7 and what we have learned in the last 25 years in business hoping to help someone else. When I think I am done, something new happens at work and I have to write about it.

    Thank you for mentioning feeling like a fraud (turning 57 in a few days), we have life experience, and not being in a rush. I do attend writer's retreats within a couple hours of home (my family knows it as being with 'my people') and I went to college at age 48 with my focus on writing classes. It was worth it because I accomplished something big and learned a lot about myself.

    It is hard to balance work, family, life, and writing. I am now starting to reach out more. I have questioned if writing was doing my heart's desire, but when I write I feel happy. When I read I feel happy. I realize the questioning was because I felt like a fraud. I am not a fraud because I have been published. It may only be occasionally, but I keep writing and sending out whenever I can.

    Thank you all for being here and the great posts.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for posting this, Kamy.  I am working on novel at 51 years of age.  Been thinking of it for a while and have been keeping notes, but now I have completed the prologue. Next step - outline!?!

  • Lisa Nanette Allender

    Thank you for the great post!
    A fabulous resource for writing, and it's a book I call a "Why-To", not a "How-To":
    Pulitzer-Prize winner, Robert Olen Butler's
    "From Where You Dream". I've met Bob a few times now at various literary events, and I explained to him that my background is in theatre/acting/film, and that
    "I utilize Method Acting, in my work; I tell people that this book of yours is a kind of "Method-Writing."
    He told me that he almost titled it that!!!
    And I agree with you on Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird". The amazing poet and novelist and Oprah Book Club Author Pearl Cleage, mentioned this book to me, and novelist Elizabeth Berg told me it is a joy for her, too!
    I've read both of these wonderful "handbooks",
    several times.

  • Chris Lorenzen

    I so enjoyed this article! I haven't been hanging around She Writes much this last year or so, having spent most of my time promoting my first book. As a 'debut' author at age 51 (my goal was a book published by 50 so I missed it by year - exactly a year after my 50th birthday lol), I can relate to this post. It is both inspiring and encouraging. And I recently picked up Reading Like a Writer so now I'll be sure to get reading it. 

  • Julie Lawson Timmer

    Another 40+ debut author here, Kamy. Mine came out when I was 48. I completely agree with your recitation of the benefits of being an older writer--namely, experience. We have lived! Heartbreak, terrible bosses, wonderful bosses, affairs (whether we're a victim, a perpetrator or a bystander as we see our friends go through it), divorce, midlife crises (our own or someone else's), devastating loss, childbirth, miscarriage, you name it. We've been around long enough to see and feel all of those universal pinpoints on the landscape of life. And to have developed a lived-in voice in which to comment about it all.

    To your excellent list of How To tips, I would add a few that worked for me:

    1. Involve your spouse and children. My husband and kids loved it when I asked them for advice about character and plot ideas, and when I shared successes and frustrations. It took away any "book versus family" notion--it was book AND family. I also think it's a good lesson for kids to cheer on a parent.

    2. Make your middle age status work for you. I'm more of an early riser now than ever before, and many people are like this as they age. Milk it: set the alarm earlier and earlier. It's a lot easier now than it was when we were younger.

    3. Make your Momhood work for you. I used to spend so much time waiting around for kids to practice sports, take lessons, etc. I started seeing these fragments as the perfect sprint writing session. How many words can I write from the bleachers during a swim practice? Can I get an entire chapter finished from my car outside the barn as my daughter tacks up, rides, cools down, grooms? So many of these locations are Internet free, which means distraction free.

    Good luck to all the others of our certain age who're working on their first books!

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, 57

    Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, 50

    Richard Adams, Watership Down, 52

    Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie series, 64

    Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes, 66

    Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn, 60s

    Charles Bukowski quit his post office job and published his first novel, Post Office, in 1971, 51 years old.

    Donald Ray Pollock enrolled in the Ohio University’s MFA program, and the year before he graduated — the same year he turned 55 — he published his first collection of short stories. His novel, which helped him pick up a Guggenheim fellowship, was only three years behind.

    Deborah Eisenberg was 41 when her first collection came out in 1986

    William S. Burroughs first book, Junky, was published in 1953, when Burroughs was 40. Naked Lunch appeared six years later.

    Helen DeWitt’s excellent debut novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000, when the author was 44 years old. 

    Raymond Chandler published his first short story in 1933 when he was 45 years old and then in 1939, his most famous novel, The Big Sleep.

    George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) published her first novel, Adam Bede, when she was 40. Middlemarch would not be published for fifteen years.

  • Elizabeth G. Marro

    Wonderful post and I enjoyed going back and reading Randy Susan Meyer's original post on this. I will be 59 when my first novel is published in February. I learned all of these 5 lessons as I wrote it. They are all true: you can't rush even when you are trying to make up for "lost time." No time is lost, if one is using it to grow, learn, and do something you love. 

  • Michelle Cox

    Great post, Kamy!  Personally, I don't think it's a disadvantage to start out after forty.  After all, who wants to read a novel about life written by a 20-year old?  In fact, one of my most beloved college professors once told my lit class that none of us should even dream of starting a novel until we were at least forty!  This is a true story!  First, she said, we had to go out and live life, fall in love, get our hearts broken, etc and have enough time to reflect and grow before it became wisdom that we felt we should share.  Back then, I thought forty sounded awfully far away, but look how fast it's gone!

  • Heidi Hornbacher

    This is exactly the support I needed today. Thank you!

  • Darlene Foster

    I published my first book at almost 60. It is never too late.