Sunday, 10 November 2013

Am I too old to be a new novelist?

So, I'm finally writing THAT novel. The one I said I'd never write, then said I might write, then decided I really ought to write. I'm approaching half-way through the first draft and the thing is taking on a life of its own. It feels like I'm about to start a down-hill gallop through the second half and towards the end. Even so, there's probably at least another year's worth of work to get it to a submittable standard. And then, imagining I got an agent and publisher IMMEDIATELY (because life totally works like that, right?), another eighteen months or so after that before I can realistically expect to see an actual book with my name on it in a bookshop. Being hugely optimistic (if not deluded), we are talking two, maybe three years before I become a debut published novelist.

I'll be in my late-forties by then. And this is something that has given me much pause for thought recently.

The internet is awash with opportunities for 'new' writers. What is a 'new' writer? Is it someone who has just started writing? Or someone who has just started submitting and getting published? You'll also see plenty of references to 'aspiring' writers. FYI, I'm not 'aspiring' to write - I actually do it. I'm 'aspiring' to be published. Quite different. Another favourite soubriquet (sick bags at the ready) is the 'budding' writer. Pur-lease. Why don't you just say 'nubile' and be done with it?

Because my suspicion is that all these terms - new, budding, aspiring - are really euphemisms for 'young'. A new 'young' writer with talent must be a more enticing prospect to a publisher than an older one, by sheer dint of the fact that they have all those writing years ahead of them. More books, more money for everyone.

And yet, how many people beavering away at their first novels are in their forties, their fifties, and beyond, into retirement age? The writer Alison Wells suggested the need for a writing competition for older writers, the entry requirement being that: 'We were doing other things'. She was joking - sort of. I've seen plenty of writing competitions open to people under a certain age. I've never seen one where you have to be OVER a certain age to enter. Why not? Is it just the economics of publishing? Or is it the assumption that young writers have talent but no gumption and need help to get started? We wrinklies can fend for ourselves. And anyway, we probably have jobs and partners that mean we don't need to write for a living, we're just hobbyists. Some of us might get lucky and get our little pet projects published, but really, if we were serious about being writers, shouldn't we have started sooner?

Now, I know all the stories about writers who started late (such as Mary Wesley) or had late resurgences (Barbara Pym), but I wonder if they would have been given a chance today. I don't know the answer to that. I don't know if agents and publishers really care about how old a writer is when they take them on, and I'd love to hear that they don't.

Meanwhile, I do have regrets about not starting sooner. And yet the things I was doing while I wasn't discovering that I was a writer are the things that make me a writer now: living, loving, grieving, make new people inside my own body, laughing, crying, fighting, watching, wondering, regretting, and above all, wondering what it's all about. The first novel I'm writing now is not the first novel I would have written in my twenties, or my thirties. I can't change that, and I really hope that it won't count against me as and when I start sending it out into the world.

At least I can be sure that by then no one would dare describe me as 'budding'.

23 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful heartfelt post. We all have a variety of starting points and situations and I think is is arbitrary to pick out authors merely for the fact of youth. I don't understand the 30 under 30 lists and so on, surely the writing is the thing. I'm sure the quality of the book is what's important for publishers but maybe they feel they have to sell the writer too. I'm hoping like you that it won't be too late once I've written and sent out my work. I'm glad my (sorta) joke inspired you and think there's room for more debate here.

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    1. It IS heartfelt, and I look forward to hearing what people think, especially agents and publishers. Not that it will in any way put me off writing the damned book, either way!

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  2. I always assumed you'd written loads. I just hadn't read it. Gawd. You are right though and raise some excellent points. Where's that Over 45s Novel Prize? I had been published with magazines years ago with short stories but the sending of a novel has petrified me. Still, this year, I entered the Bridport. I have no hope of winning even a minor prize but the sending it off was good - and they have no idea how old I am...

    Hx

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    1. Well, I have written (and published) a lot, but so far it's all be short stories and flash.

      Competitions are a great way to have your novel read without any preconceptions from the reader - worth bearing in mind!

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  3. I was into my 60s when a publisher took a chance on me, so be of good cheer at your youthful time of life. A kindly soul once told me that it's never too late to write a novel but it can be too early. Focus on youth and on its early success doesn't happen just in writing and it's hard to see this changing. Think how readily we praise the achievements of our own children. You're a writer, whose published novel I look forward to reading.

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    1. A very cheering response, thanks Barry.

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  4. Over 40s are wrinklies? Ye gads!

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    1. Well, it depends on how far over 40...

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  5. You'll be happy to hear that the McKitterick Prize is a well established Prize for a debut novel by an author over 40. Alison Moore won it last year. So there is that.
    http://www.societyofauthors.org/mckitterick
    It's not, perhaps, as well publicised as the Granta young writers, and all the other stuff aimed specifically at people who may not have been busy 'doing other things' (a club which I would like to join please).
    Now crack on with it, would you, Rachael. I want to read your book.

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    1. I didn't know about the McKitterick Prize, that's good to know. Perhaps someone needs to start a list of prizes for 'ripe' writers. Possibly that someone is me.

      Right, cracking on.

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  6. Oh and also, Vanessa Gebbie wrote a great blog post on this kind of thing I'm sure. I can't find it right now, but there's no harm in browsing her blog because it's full of great posts.

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  7. I'm working on a novel - that I started ages ago. Should it get published I'll be in my -- oh well let's just rely on that old chestnut: 60 is the new 40.

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    1. Quite. Forty isn't even middle-aged anymore.

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  8. Totally agree with your point about being busy experiencing life and 'doing things' that then influence your writing.

    One obvious reason why an agent or publisher would be more interested in a young writer is the simplistic idea that the sooner one starts, the more books will be produced in a career (and more money for those involved in the chain).

    But does this really hold true in a climate where young people need to come up with £50k for a deposit for an average house -- or shoebox in London.

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    1. Whatever age the writer, it's nigh on impossible to earning a living solely from selling books. Not that that will stop me trying.

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    2. That's why it's not surprising that many younger people with the potential to be great writers end up reluctantly choosing 'sensible day jobs' that have better odds of making a decent living. Therefore it's not surprising if people return to writing once they've achieved a measure of financial security. Not very romantic but if you look at the demographics of a typical writing group or conference or agent talk, this seems to be borne out.

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  9. This is a really interesting post, Rachael. Like you I am sometimes frustrated by competitions, awards etc which seem to make an automatic link between 'new' and 'young' where writers are concerned. However, from my brand new perspective as a 40-something first time novelist who's just signed with an agent, I can honestly say that I don't think age is a big issue - someone in their forties could have twenty if not thirty productive writing years ahead of them.

    I've recently been in contact with a number of agents most of whom were MUCH younger than me and at no point did anyone show the remotest interest in my age, nor did I bring it up (not that it would have been hard to work out). We are not too old to be new novelists and just as well, as there's nothing we can do about it! I think the bigger challenge by far is writing a really good book that agents and publishers think will sell - and that's the same for any writer. Good luck with your novel!

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    1. It occurs to me that if I go down the normal route of submitting to agents (rather than seeking them out in person) then they won't know how old I am when they first read my work unless I tell them. I wonder if it's a conversation that's had between agents and publishers, or does it really not matter?

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    2. Like Isabel says, I'd expect the writing is by far the biggest factor for an agent, although a young, sexy author might be interesting to publishers wanting to generate press in those 'hot young talents to watch' articles that appear in the papers.

      I've been reading reviews of Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. She was nearly 60 when her first novel was published and she's now regarded as one of the greatest writers of recent times.

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  10. I'm with Barry (and Isabel and Mike). Despite those contests for "young, new" authors, there is a level of experience that a person gains through the years that positively inform one's writing. And good agents should recognize good writing, regardless of the writer's age. Go for it! And then I can read your book.

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  11. No, no, you are not too old; forty is the new ten. Fact.

    If it helps at all, I'm in the same boat and behind you on the writing, so I'm definitely cheering you on! Also, at the risk of citing more examples, I wrote a blog post about this with a list of authors' ages. E.g. Adeline Yen Mah was older than us when she published 'Falling Leaves', and as Claire said, Vanessa Gebbie was in her fifties when her gorgeous debut 'A Cowards Tale' came out.

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    1. Sorry, typo -- Vanessa's book is 'The Coward's Tale' of course...

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