How do you know when you’re too old to write a novel? Is there a magic cutoff age after which fiction writers need not apply? What if you got a late start and you desperately need to make up for lost time?
Scott posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hey Randy, I have a question for you. What is the best way to get started in fiction when you are a late bloomer?
I’m 28, I graduated from the business school, not liberal arts, and have been in the corporate world ever since. I have only recently become enthralled with writing fiction, I’d say within the last year or so.
Everything I know, I’ve learned from sites like yours. As great as your site is, I’m sure I am missing out on things that someone who has always been interested in writing fiction takes for granted. How big of a disadvantage do you think this knowledge gap puts me? And where would you recommend someone who is completely and utterly raw to the craft get started?
Randy sez: Scott, you’re not a late bloomer, you’re a spring chicken. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 29. Then I worked on my craft for another ten years before I got published.
Strictly speaking, that isn’t quite true. I actually published the first thing I submitted. Yes, really, when I was in grad school at Berkeley, the first piece of writing I submitted was an article titled “Another Look at the Gauged Wess-Zumino Effective Action.” I sent it to the journal Nuclear Physics B, which was at the time the leading journal in elementary particle theory. They published it. (Hope you didn’t miss this extraordinary contribution to literature.) Tragically, it didn’t win me a single Pulitzer or Nobel, but at least it was a publishing credit, right?
Obviously, that wasn’t fiction. But even then, I was starting to think that I really wanted to try my hand at writing a novel. It took me a few years to sit down and actually start writing fiction. It took even longer to get it published.
The moral of the story, if you want one, is that it really doesn’t much matter when you start writing. If you’ve got a pulse, then you might get published someday. If you don’t, you won’t.
Where should you start learning the craft of fiction? You’ve made a good start. You’re at the right place. (Anyone who wants evidence of that should just Google the phrase “fiction writing blog” and see which blog is the #1 result.)
I recommend a four-pronged approach to improving your craft. You should not think of these four prongs as steps along the way. They are four things you should be pursuing simultaneously. You will never, ever, ever get past these, even after you win your Pulitzer/Nobel/big-honking-award:
- Read. Read good fiction. Read good fiction in all genres. Read good fiction in all genres, including the ones you wouldn’t be caught dead reading. Go on, guys, read a romance once in a while; you’ll learn how the women think and your female characters won’t be just male fantasies. And ladies, read a good book with knife fights and bullets and exploding helicopters; this will put some testosterone in your “girlie-man” male characters.
- Write. You don’t get good at tennis by talking about it. You get good at tennis by playing tennis. You get good at writing fiction by writing fiction.
- Get critiqued. Nobody is an adequate judge of their own writing. You need an outside opinion, preferably by somebody who knows what the heck they’re talking about. But remember that even the greenest reader can still nail a weakness in your writing if you listen. Also remember that not everybody gets your writing, and sometimes that big-shot writer or editor really isn’t on the same planet that you are. So don’t ignore everything you hear in your critiques, but don’t believe everything either. Listen to the critiques, then pick your own path to glory.
- Learn the theory. There are a few geniuses who pick up the craft by osmosis just by reading. I hate those kind of people. Most of us mortals need to listen to lectures or read books about the craft. I did. I learned a lot from Dwight Swain and Sol Stein and Jim Bell and Renni Browne and a scad of others. I recommend all of their books (see my page of recommended books on fiction writing). Being a selfish guy, I should mention that my book (WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES) has been doing really well since it came out last December.
Those are the four things that just about all published authors have done to learn this wretched game called fiction writing. Do those and you’ll maximize your chances of joining our ranks.
Remember one thing: There aren’t any shortcuts in this business, but there are longcuts. When you see someone offering you some magic trick that will make you an instant author, that isn’t a shortcut. You’re going to waste your money on it and possibly a lot of time. That’s a longcut. Don’t cut corners. Learn the craft. Read. Write. Get critiqued. Get instruction. Keep doing all four of those, forever.
Scott, in three or four years, after you’ve followed the above sage advice and got your book published, shoot me an email and let me know. I’ll be delighted. But I won’t be surprised.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.