Are You Too Old to Write a Bestseller?

Are You Too Old to Write a Bestseller?

I have a bus pass, ten pairs of spectacles in my sock drawer, and—at age 65—the crotchety disposition that arrives only when you overhear your neighbor describe you as “that funny old fellow next door.” Yes, I am old. But too old to write a bestseller?

I’ve just read the autobiography of Susan Hill, a novelist of my own vintage who wrote the bestseller The Woman in Black in 1983. She blithely tells how she was Arnold Wesker’s babysitter and published her first novel before she left school. Soon after, she was the confidante of every literary genius in England. How could she fail to write a classic? She’d been groomed for it since childhood.

I didn’t meet my first “name” author till I was 63. Yes, I am too old. Then I went along to a literary festival and lunched in a group with the veteran author P. D. James. She was 91 and just finishing her 21st novel. I asked her a fumbling question. “Speak up, young man,” she barked. “I’m not as young as you are.” Bliss! No, I am not too old to write a bestseller.

But do I want to? And plow the lonely field of a debut novelist at an age when my most strenuous activity should be insulting my neighbor?

It’s not that I’m new to writing.

I’ve been a commercial author all my life, in public relations and journalism, and was even a newspaper editor in the days when text was stuck to backing boards with rubber glue. (“Hold the front page. A caption’s fallen off.”) But fiction is a tougher discipline, like learning to paint portraits after you’ve been a graffiti artist.

What’s more, I heard Joanne Harris tell us at that same conference it had taken her 15 years to be an “overnight success” with Chocolat, the novel that became a film success. She’d had to throw away five novels in that time, unpublished. Do I have such patience?

I lapsed into sour grapes mode. Even midlist novelists earn only $30,000 a year from their fiction, on average, I told myself. That’s why they’re all at conferences, speaking for $300 plus a free lunch. Is it worth it?

I reviewed my options.

One good novel might take me twelve months to finish and then a further year to trek it around copyeditors, agents and—finally—a psychiatrist’s office as the mounting rejection slips drove me into clinical despair. On an hourly basis, I could earn more working at McDonald’s, and with less stress.

In a pique, I took a Ph.D. in creative writing instead. That was easy. I was writing nonfiction, my accustomed genre (although I still made it up as I went along). At last, I knew how to write fiction. Didn’t I?  I just had to write it.

While I mulled that over, I launched my own online writing course—the Writers’ Village Academy, now in its second year. To my astonishment, it did remarkably well. And my students won story awards and published their novels, following my advice. They sent me nice testimonials. I did know how to do it!

But I still had to do it myself.

So this year, I drafted a novel and sent the first chapter to one of England’s top literary agents. (I’d carefully spilled wine on him at the literary festival, to initiate a conversation.) The wretched man loves my first 5000 words. Now he wants to see the rest of the novel. Bliss and damnation. The problem is, I haven’t finished the novel. What do you write after Chapter One?

I shall consult my own writing course. It has answers for everything. (I’m sure of that, because I wrote them.) And when I sign his contract later this year (oh, I will!), I shall mail myself a rapturous testimonial. I’ve earned it. In five years I’ve come all the way from “Can I do it?” to “What shall I tell the audience at that literary conference next year when I return as its star speaker?”

Of course, I know the answer now. “You’re never too old to write a bestseller!” I’ll say. “But please speak up. I’m not as young as you are.”

Tell me your opinion: Do ever feel your age (whatever it is) is a hindrance to your success as a writer?

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About John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, Ph.D., Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that sell in his free 14-part course.

Comments

  1. Hariprasad says:

    I’m eighteen. Sometimes, I think that I’m too young for this. And I’ve got a lot to learn. However, I’m writing the third chapter of my novel.

  2. I never think of myself as old when I’m writing. I never expect to earn a lot of money either. Now days, that isn’t realistic. So many people are self-publishing. With an abundance of books to choose from, how will readers notice mine? I like to think of writing as an art form. In that, I’m constantly striving for excellence.

  3. Although I’ve been writing most of my life I have to admit, I’ve had moments were I thought I was too old to start writing novels. I’ve wished that I started when I was in my twenties. But then I say to myself, “Self, why not? Have you got something better that you’d like to do?” So I’m doing it. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

  4. Doubt is the constant companion of any age. We can do more than we think we can — I learned that when jogging and a Doberman Pincher broke loose from his chain to run after me, barks and growls right behind my heels. I found I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I had felt just moments before. If we don’t knock on the door of opportunity, it will never open. You can do this. It’s what I tell myself, too. 🙂

  5. Just yesterday, I was thinking I’m too old to keep writing with any hope of publication. This article helps me change my mind.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, John!

  7. I would actually think that older people have a better chance at writing a best-seller, as they have much more life experience and knowledge that they can draw from.

    When I started writing, I was about 10-11, and my age was a huge hindrance. Or rather, the lack of any kind of experience or knowledge related to my stories. That was actually what prompted me into doing a lot of late-night study in medieval ways, warfare and weapons, since I was trying to write fantasy based off of that time-period.

    Now, though I can always learn more, most of my writing problems are not age-related. And I’ve found a genre that I know quite well, though not perfectly. 😉

  8. Dear John (you know, I’ve always wanted to begin a note with this greeting!), I must admit the thought I might be too old write a successful novel crossed my mind the other day. But then I realized that I have a half-century of life experiences, in which I have come to actually know just about every archetype known to man. These are things we own–that we have earned–that we can draw upon in creating believable fictional worlds filled with those characters. We just need to continue putting down one word after another after another.

  9. Yes, our later years are exactly the right time to begin a novel! We have the experience, the leisure (usually), and the patience that comes with a lifetime of ups and downs. Perhaps the majority of the people on my writing course are Silver Agers. (Does that mean our hair is silver but our expectations are golden?)

  10. Too old? No. But one of the gifts age granted me is the sense that I don’t have forever. If I want to publish at the age of 65 (the earliest I can reasonably expect to, that birthday being in August), I have to get up in the morning, forego Reader, and write. I failed at that this morning.

  11. Thanks for reminding us John Yeoman, that age alone should not be considered an hindrance. All of us must learn the skills of our craft and develop the discipline to get the job done.
    Thanks again!

  12. wonderful article, so glad you included real life (writers) examples

    thanks so much young man 😉

  13. Now there’s a question I’m happy to answer. Yes! Thank you, John.
    Inspirational and I agree.
    There have been times when I let myself get stressed over how much time I have left and would put myself on a treadmill, so to speak. But now I’m more careful to enjoy the journey and not get worried about the destination, but I do work steadily and daily at the novel.
    I’ve written nonfiction most of my adult life and always aspired to write stories, and I have, knowing I wasn’t up to publishing level yet. Way back then when I started out, there were so few really good resources for learning fiction. The Famous Writer’s School was a good one for me but not quite enough. These days, there so many more fine books on the craft. And with word processing, what excuse do we aspiring writers have for not giving it a committed go, really? I can remember being on guard duty in Viet Nam, cranking out stories on a portable Olivetti manual typewriter.
    If I were not hard at work at an excellent and demanding online course on “revising your novel” I’d be one of your online tutoring students. I have learned key insights from your freebie emails, by the way.
    So when the thought occurs, Am I too old? I answer myself with: “What are you going to do sit around watching TV and waiting to kick the bucket?” I do talk to myself at times.
    Good post, Dr. John.
    Thank you too, Katie.

  14. I felt that way when I attended my first writing conference and everyone on the bus was published twenty-something year olds. Thankfully there were people my age and older when I reached the hotel. LOL!

    Many times we think we’re old until we meet someone like P.D. James who says “I’m not as young as you are.” Love that!

    Great post, Dr. John!

  15. Oh loved, loved, loved this! The same doubts seems to riddle most of us, am I too old, too young, too busy etc. The best things is probably just To Do It. It is better to have a novel to have to revise than not to have one at all. And if people say I can’t, or shouldn’t, well I can’t hear them that well either, sorry…

  16. Time is often irrelevant. I often wish I had written my first middle grade novel (The Secret of the Sacred Scarab) ten years earlier than I actually did. But my nephews, who inspired the story and went with me to Egypt (the story setting) would have been a new-born and two years old respectively, instead of being ten and twelve, the perfect age for an adventure. I think whatever the age one writes a book, it is the right age to do so. We have to remember that life experience counts. It would be strange for a young author, who has never experienced deep and terrible loss or tragedy to be able to express it as well as a writer who is putting heartfelt experience down on paper (or e-paper!) An author friend of mine recently announced that her dad at 80-something has published his first book of ‘wise sayings.’ You are never too old for anything (except maybe climbing Everest). I agree that P.D. James is an inspiration to us all, no matter what age.

  17. I published my first book just before I turned 60, that was 3 years ago, and a second book and 2 short stories later, I have sold over 50,000 copies of my 2 books, made more last year than I made in one year as a full time professor, and my ebooks have been consistent “bestsellers” in the historical mystery category in the Kindle store.

    I don’t think I would have achieved nearly the success I have had (or have had nearly the fun) if I had limited myself to the traditional route, so I want to encourage everyone of every age to consider your options. If you want my reasons for going the indie author route, I did write about it in a blog post called “Late to the Fair,” http://mlouisalocke.com/2010/08/24/late-to-the-fair-why-i-became-an-indie-author/

    Meanwhile, whatever route you take, it really is never to late.

    M. Louisa Locke

  18. Age doesn’t matter. I published my best seller last year. The title, you ask? Lady and the Sea, a novel based on my true story. Of course the world doesn’t know it’s a best seller because the marketing process takes forever! But like you said, John, what else do we golden-silver seniors have but time?
    I love your post … so encouraging. Glad I found you somewhere in the maze of Blogland.
    Smooth sailing and oceans of blessings from the almost-famous author, Sharon Leaf (I’m sure you’ll hear my name mentioned in the coming years … just hope I’m still around)

  19. Just read my comment. forgot (as I sometimes do) to mention my age: 67.

  20. My personal experience reflects the cliche’ “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I’m 54, and last May1, sat down to ‘Write That Book’. I was first told I ought to write a book when I was 27 or so. I had fumbled a few times with writing tales (I’m a hell of an anecdotalist a parties), but never got beyond a couple pages.

    I wrote 90K work ms in less than 8 weeks.
    Oh dear Lord, it’s terrible. But it was a start.
    Since then, I’ve written a 2nd ms that’s been sent to Beta readers, and I’m working on a third. I’ve also helped my Life Partner with two books she’s written.

    I go to class for about an hour a day- here online (waves at Prof Yeoman) to learn so much of the stuff I’ve missed. Do I wish, that like King etc I studied English or even Writing in University? Yes and no- yes in that had I, all the technical aspects of this craft would have been drilled into me. Maybe semi-colons and commas wouldn’t be such a curse? No, because my studies in Psychology serve me pretty well in understanding people on a deeper level- their social/biological/emotional natures kind of thing.

    I’m a good two to three months from putting up my first novel, and another two to three from putting up my second. Then I’ll go back to ‘Spike’, and see if that book can be fixed. Then I’ll market the hell out of them, and hopefully earn a living at it. My plans are all made with the basic understanding that luck plays a significant role in success in the creative arts.

    Career wise (or is that business wise?) I have decided to forego traditional publishing and follow the models described by Joe Konrath and Hugh Howey. They are working on self publishing, what I call ‘Pub 2.0’.

    For me- and this section describes my personal makeup than a universal rule- I had to, HAD to have in my life someone I love and respect to encourage me when I started this. All dreams start as a tender idea, and can be crushed by something as simple as an offhand comment, or even a shrug of the shoulders when we share them with someone. My dream was nurtured and cared for in it’s beginning stages by KD McLean.

    I’ve never put in more effort on an idea. On a dream. I’ve never felt so blessed. I’ve also never felt so… well, face it- apprehensive. But I have finally, finally found what I want to do having now grown up.

    Great post, Doctor. And good luck to you with YOUR book!

  21. I am at the same age as John, I have myself to be stymied in my writing at times by allowing myself to wonder if I’m ‘too old.’ Sometimes I’ve found myself asking if people won’t think I’m crazy trying to write at my age. Thanks John for sharing on this subject. You’ve given me great encouragement by demonstrating what a silly self imposed limitation this is. Also I loved your ancedote about P.D. James.

  22. Great topic, thanks. I thank God every day that I’m a novelist, where age doesn’t seem to matter as long as you can write a great story, and not a screenwriter, where age does seem to matter to the powers that be! I do have to admit to occasional twinges over wishing I’d gotten started at publishing a bit earlier, but my life is what it is. And I plan to be like P.D. James and still writing at 91.

  23. Anonymous says:

    May 22, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    In a previous life, I taught middle grade students for 32 years. There’s no way that I could’ve been a serious writer during those years. Yes, I wanted to write, but due to the energy it takes to be a good teacher in the public schools of USA, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice and become a second-rate writer/teacher. So I raised two beautiful children and taught school until now. I have been writing full time since I retired and I absolutely love it. I have time now to spend all day writing or researching or traveling. All of that makes me a better writer. I have finished three novels but I’ve only just begun to submit one of them for publication. No luck so far in getting an agent but it’s early and I’ll never give up trying. Like others have said before me, this is what I want to spend the rest of my healthy life doing. It’s certainly like a calling and I know I could never NOT be a writer. So, I’ll write and write and continue to seek publication. I consider myself so fortunate to have this time in my life, a time to do what I love all day long, writing the day away! Thanks for the encouragement!

  24. Having reached degree status in creative writing this year aged sixty nine,I am in the throes of setting up a writers circle. So no, you are never too old. Although I have questioned my age I am ten thousand words into my first novel. And mean to keep going.

  25. Is that john in the picture on the laptop. It looks like the South of France, if I could write there I would get far more done!!

  26. I usually feel that I am a bit too young to write. Being only 18 (spent with over-protecting parents). I feel like I have way too little insight on life, required for this field. But I am doing it anyway, if I am young and maybe will grow up in the future, let my audience (if I am lucky enough to get any) see my progress with me 😀

  27. Age gives you so many more experiences to reference. How can it be a bad thing? 😉

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