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.
Lyn, what a great post! Thank you for sharing your hard-won expertise.
Thank you for reading! I wanted to create a place where authors can send people who are looking for advice on this often confusing and challenging, but rewarding, second career.
I really liked your post.I am in my 60’s, a retired educator professor after 35 years. I would like to write a non fiction book about adoption after the war in Canada. How do you suggest I start.
Thank you for writing in, Jackie! I assume you’re more familiar with academic publishing rather than trade publishing. I think the first thing you need to do is think about who your audience is. Are you writing for general readers? Young people? I suggest reading similar, recently-published books to see where yours fits in and the dominant writing style and approach of the comparable titles. You’ll also get an idea of who published these books, and in the acknowledgements they usually mention their agents and editors.
What an encouraging post, Lyn! It’s refreshing to hear someone offer practical advice to an older newcomer. Your comment about no life experience being wasted is spot on and could be just what they need to hear. My guess is you’ve propelled some tentative folks to put their pens to paper and write.
I hope so! Thank you, Stephanie!
Wonderful advice, Lyn, for older and younger authors. I’m glad to have this post to steer would-be authors toward.
Thank you, Linda! I hope it helps!
Excellent post, excellent advice, and just the encouragement I needed to slog on up to my desk today.
I hope you have a productive writing session, Tara! Glad I could help!
Lyn, as always your words of wisdom are as compelling and fascinating as your fiction! Thank you for this, I especially need to hear it all again. So glad our paths crossed at VCFA!!! Onward girl!
Thank you for reading and writing in, Mo! I hope that you’ll be able to see more of my fiction within the next couple of years too!
Wonderful post — will circulate!
Thank you, Robin! Congratulations on The Bond and its recent award — you’re an inspiring example of someone who’s had a successful (and important) career and has used it as the basis of your fiction.
HI Lyn, great informative post. Coincidentally, I began career 3.0 as a kid lit writer on my 60th b-day. I said, “What am I waiting for?” I am now 66 and have followed most of the advice on you list. I belong to SCBWI, had a “shmagent” (let go in a group email), blog, have a web site, am on twitter and am in the query trenches now. Former careers include English teacher and K-12 school librarian, so that background helped. I feel empowered and freer to do what I want at this age. TY of this post and for combatting agism. Yes we can be writers and authors.
Thank you, Kathy! I’m sorry about the shmagent — they let all their clients go in a group email? Unlike that person, you’re in for the long haul and I wish you all the best in your search for a new agent. Please let me know if you have questions!
What a great post.. I’m an almost
60 yo picture book writer but feel I’m very close to being sold after 8 hard years of learning and perfecting my craft. I agree that even if I don’t ever get pub’d, I will have met interesting people and enjoyed the power of the creative process. There is nothing like the feeling of finishing that first draft on a new story!
I agree! For me, the first draft is always the hardest too. Thank you for reading and commenting!
Good post, but there are plenty of great books more than 2 or 3 years old that are still great and way too good to miss. And they are not flowery or boring. The Tale of Despereaux, Holes, the Midwife’s Apprentice, Charlotte’s Web, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Joey Pigza Loses Control, Catherine Called Birdy, The Thief etc. The best books endure.
I agree that writers should read the classics and along with enjoying them, think about why they have staying power. But they shouldn’t read the classics only. In querying an agent, one can mention a classic as a comparable title but along with it a recently published book. Nowadays, many query letters include comps that aren’t books but popular movies and TV shows like Stranger Things and Crazy Rich Asians.
Thanks for the encouragement, Lyn, and your advice is spot on. I started my quest to publish after retiring as a reading specialist 7 years ago. I just turned 64. I have an agent and have been close to traditional publication but still not there. The age factor does play into how long I keep at it before I go the self-publishing route. I have always said that I’d be writing even if I never got published, yet that publishing goal never seems to go away. And YES! the people and learning gathered along the way has been a joy! It has been a worthy journey. Thanks for believing in us older writers.
Thank you for reading! Congratulations on getting the agent, and best wishes for the next step! You have a nice website and blog, and I’ve found blogging to be a great outlet for writing, publishing, and community-building during my own dry spell.