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.
Bruce H. Johnson says
Hey, I’m 62 and just started in 2005. Who will care? I plan on being around another 20 years or so.
WFFD is an excellent source — read and heed. Keep up with articles (RSS feeds work great) and viewpoints.
Learn your basics as Randy says above, then go write something.
Interestingly enough, just today I was reading that Tom Clancy’s first novel was published when he was 39. He had been an insurance seller up to that point. That gives me hope (and 10 years!)
Brian T. Carroll says
Randy (and Scott),
As an undergraduate at UCLA I nearly completed a minor in creative writing, and then (at 23) read several boring books by authors too young to have experienced enough of life. For a variety of reasons I began to consider putting writing aside for a while to go live an exciting life, and come back later to write about it. I went to see my writing professor (novelist Bernard Wolff, who had known Hemingway in Spain, Paris, & Cuba, and then been Trotsky’s bodyguard in Mexico and assistant in translating his memoirs into English). He lit up a cigar, leaned back in his chair, and said, “Don’t worry if you haven’t published by 50.” I am 60 now, and coasting on the knowledge that I still have time.
Richard Mabry says
Randy, good advice. Scott, pay no attention to the date on your birth certificate. As Satchel Paige said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” I didn’t start writing until I was drawing Social Security, and I’m currently holding copies of two of the three novels for which I have a contract. It’s never too late.
Judith Robl says
Twenty-eight is a late bloomer?!?!?! I’m seventy-one and will be nearly seventy-two before I have my first published work in my hands — and it isn’t a novel.
That is yet to be written. I’ve been working on what started out as a trilogy thirty-five years ago. It’s morphed into five separate novels, threaded together by a theme and genealogy.
Richard, I’m looking up your novels.
Jenny Carlisle says
Thanks to all of you for the encouragement. Randy, you’re right on all four counts. I’ve spent over thirty years after high school living the life that will give me fodder for my fiction.With early retirement from my job coming up, my time for publishing is coming!
Scott, if you want it, and you work at it, it will happen, in God’s time!
Kim Miller says
29 is late? Funny guy.
My first novel got published last year when I was 59. First book of short stories three years ago. More of both to come.
Obinna Ozoigbo says
Scott, I must state, categorically, that there is nothing like a Late Bloomer Novelist! If the late Sidney Sheldon had seen himself as one, he would, certainly, never have made it as one of the world’s famous novelists who had sold over 300 million copies!
I am 38 now. I wrote my first novel at 17. But the unfortunate thing is that it never got published. I finished writing my second (which is about to be published) at 36, because I was so absorbed in the corporate world for 13 consecutive years, i.e. between the ages of late 19 and early 34, that I could neither read nor write as much as I wanted to.
Looking back now, I’m so glad, so relieved, that my first novel, after all, was not published when I was 17, because I see naivity written all over it–which I would have otherwise not seen. And this now tells me that the possibility of my suffering rejections then was not remote at all. That is to say, it pays to write when you get older–or even much older.
Scott, I pray that your days be long and happy, so that you’ll live to really experience, and understand, what I’m talking about.
Adam Leigh says
I’m very glad to see so many 50+ year old people breaking into fiction, it makes me, as a young 29 year old, hopeful that I will be published someday.
I’ve been writing unpublishable fiction (mostly fanfiction with some other things could be infringement if I ever tried to publish) for 14 years now. While some published authors look scornfully at such things, I have to say it has helped me learn rules of writing that I’m sure I never would have gotten just scribbling original work that never got published. It’s hard to get really quality feedback when writing fan works, but what little I get helps me understand where I’ve caught my audience’s attention and when I haven’t.
The point is, I started thinking I should be trying to get published as early as 9 years ago, and looking back at what I wrote back then, I’m glad I didn’t get caught up trying. I really needed to keep writing and keep getting feedback because I was still making a lot of silly mistakes.
I agree with Randy, there is never a ‘too late’ time to try and get published unless you’re already dead. And even then, dying did wonders for Philip K. Dick’s writing career, so there’s still hope. 🙂
UGH! It is not about age. It is about passion.
Scott, maybe you feel as though, if you weren’t writing during those first 28 years, that you’re too late to the party. You’re afraid you’re a ship-jumper. A cheater. An old dog. Perhaps your writing peers were born writing novels and have reams of completed & semi-completed works in varying stages of publication including collecting dust under their beds (like my 24yo son). They got dreads and wear patchoulli and trained as artists and have been writing like maniacs while you donned a power suit and trained for the biz world. But there are no rules about how early you have to begin training. Unless at age 28 you decide to become an Olympic ski-jumper and you’ve never seen a pair of skis.
College is one way to set out on a career path, but it doesn’t put a tatoo on your destiny. I’ve heard of doctors (hi Doc!) and lawyers becoming novelists after years in other professions. Their work and life experiences bring a unique, colorful perspective to what they write. And now you’re now equipped to write corporate suspense thrillers, dramas, horror, fantasies, comedies, or romances—whatever floats your boat—that only YOU can.
I raised a family before it occured to me to write a novel. College provides valuable academic training, but life is the teacher.
Agreed – 28 is young! (I can say that because I’m 29, ha!) 🙂
Look at Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Angela’s Ashes, which was adapted for (in my opiniong, very good) film. His book was published in 1996… when he was 66 years old. And it’s a really good (if heartbreaking) read. Best wishes to you & in your new writing career.
Premise: Per state decree, no person 30 or older may perform work, paid or unpaid, outside their own field. Writers older than 30 covertly contact the late 20-s late bloomers in order to get published. Will Scott put his future career and family hopes on the line so that guys like Don can be published? Or will the government crush them both?
Miriam Cheney says
Age, Schmage. Wasn’t Urlusa Hegi in her 80’s when she first published?
One must be patient in this life. Finding a mate, having a child, establishing a business … we all arrive at different places in life at different ages. Now the key is to not stress about how long it takes you to write well enough to get published. Focus on Randy’s four suggestions and crafting a good story. The rest will come when it comes.
Thanks for all the encouragement guys. For the record I don’t think 28 is old, by any means. When I said late bloomer I just meant that I had no idea where to even start writing real, publishable fiction. Learning the theory of it all is still overwhelming. It is very encouraging to see how many of you got late starts as well.
Thanks again Randy, for all that you do.
Christina Summers says
What is it with the number 29?! At 29, I’m also looking at starting my first novel!
It’s very encouraging to see there are so many people past their 50s also starting out.
Late bloomer? At 28? Oh please.
I began writing at 55, have completed 6 novels with 2 published.
It turns out that being around long enough to pick up just a little understanding of the mysteries of we humans is actually useful.