Advising a 60-Year-Old Who Wants to Write
Not long after Rogue came out, a mother at a bookstore panel asked for advice for her nine-year-old son who wanted to become a writer. The panelists offered suggestions, which I turned into this blog post. Many of us also get these requests from older adults who are turning to writing as a potential second career. I’m afraid that people who’ve spent their lives in other fields don’t get the encouraging, enthusiastic responses that children and teens do, and I’m here to fix this situation.
This post was prompted by a text message I received from one of my brother’s best friends in high school. We were close enough in age that I got to know this friend and always found him to be intelligent, creative, and kind — someone who would be a valued contributor and colleague every place he went. His daughters are grown now, but when they were young, he’d make up stories for them, and at one point he played with illustration software in the hope of authoring and illustrating his own picture books. Over the course of many years he wrote and rewrote, illustrated and reworked his illustrations, until he realized he was foremost a writer rather than a visual artist. Now he would like to see his stories out in the world, and through a traditional publisher rather than going the self-publishing route. Although self-publishing would offer a guarantee of publication and a much faster timetable — the timetable a major consideration for many older writers — he wanted the endorsement and superior distribution of a traditional publisher.
I gave him advice that I think is worth sharing, and if you’re an author who’s been asked the same question, please offer your suggestions in the comments and give this link to the person asking. Much of the advice is the same as for the nine-year-old, but with some key differences. And for one specific point, I recommend the opposite if the older writer is seriously seeking a traditional publisher. So here goes:
1. Read. Read widely. Read deeply in the age category and genre in which you wish to write. My brother’s friend wasn’t sure his interconnected stories were picture books, early readers, or young middle grade. (He was more certain of contemporary fantasy as the genre.) Reading books in all these categories would give him a better idea of where he fits in, in terms of style and sensibility, and how he needs to revise his work to conform to the requirements of the category as to length, characterization, and story structure.
Older writers often have read widely, but I cannot emphasize enough that most of the books you read need to have been published in the past two or three years. Too often someone wants to imitate the style of a beloved classic, unaware that said classic suffers from too-slow pacing, overly flowery description, preachiness, and problematic cultural content. If you want to find an agent and a traditional publisher, you will also need a list of comparable titles (also known as “comps”) that are no more than three years old.
2. No experience is wasted. This is the corollary to telling the nine-year-old that the most important thing for him to do is play. My brother’s friend regrets the years he spent learning how to illustrate his stories, only to find out he didn’t have the chops to illustrate. He did learn, however, how to imagine the story visually and how to block out scenes and arrange them to create a coherent whole. Many picture book authors do the same — they mock up their 32-page story (minus front and back matter and taking into account double spreads) with stick-figures to get a sense of the structure, the pacing, and whether their words offer enough opportunities for an illustrator to imagine a variety of images for the spaces left behind. While I stopped writing fiction for ten years when my children were young, I coached my son’s football and basketball teams. My experience as a coach inspired a plot element in my adult novel, Dirt Cheap.
3. Learn about the industry. In contrast to my advice to very young writers, who should avoid inserting themselves into a competitive publishing environment too soon, I suggest that older writers study how the publishing industry works, what an agent can do, and how their work fits into the industry. A nine-year-old has a lot of time to play around. An older writer interested in traditional publishing does not. And while age discrimination is a major problem in the industry — and totally unjustified when writers have read widely, perfected their craft, and created stories of interest to today’s readers — there are many cases of authors debuting in their 50s and later. In fact, Delia Owens published her bestselling debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing in her late 60s. If you’re closer to her age than that of the latest wunderkind, read her interviews, find out the steps she took, and let her inspire you to do the same.
4. Practice, practice, practice…and get help. Like with any skill, developing as a writer requires extensive practice. If you’ve written a first draft of your novel, congratulations! Understand, though, that it’s a first draft. It’s not ready for publication. You need to find beta readers, people who can tell you if the story makes sense, if they connect with the characters, if your writing holds their interest, and if it conforms to the rules of your chosen age category and genre. Pro tip: If you send your novel manuscript to beta readers, and a large number (as in more than one or two known flakes) don’t get back to you, your story is not working. People may be too polite to tell you, or they may not know how to begin to help you. If that’s the case, it’s time to look for one-on-one mentoring (which I did with Dirt Cheap) or developmental editing. Tutors, mentors, and insightful editors who are good communicators are pricey, but one of the advantages of writing as a second career is that you’ve possibly made money in your first career and can afford help. Writing tutors are still cheaper than golf instructors and country club memberships. Which brings me to…
5. Join a community. If you write children’s books like my brother’s friend, you need to join SCBWI, read their publications, and attend conferences where you can learn your craft and the ins and outs of the industry. Virtually all adult genres have their own organizations as well — SFWA for speculative fiction, RWA for romance writers, university-based workshops like the New York State Writers Institute (where I took classes) for literary writers. Maybe in retirement (or earlier) you want to enroll in a low-residency program for your MFA. Workshops and conferences are great places to meet writing partners, beta readers, and mentors. Maybe you can mentor someone starting out and seeking a work-life balance, or a career that can sustain an interest in writing. Maybe you’re a money manager and can help a successful author budget for the future in exchange for that author helping you grow as a writer. In any case, being part of a community will make you feel less isolated, especially if your family and friends don’t understand why you lock yourself in your basement office for hours making up stories after you come home from work. Even if you never find a traditional publisher, getting to know a lot of nice people who like to do the same thing you do is a benefit in itself. If you live in a remote location (or even if you don’t), sign up for Twitter and join #writingcommunity, because there are a lot of great people who like to discuss their manuscripts and play fun games involving their characters and settings.
And a pro tip for the young ‘uns: Be a nice person. Welcome older writers to the community, and don’t look down on people who are still developing their craft or who have chosen to self-publish. One of these days, you’ll be old too.
6. Above all, have fun with writing and making up stories. It’s true if you’re nine and if you’re 60. Like developing any skill, writing fiction involves hard work, but the journey should be worth it even if you never make it to your destination.