Remember the much acclaimed The Icarus Girl? Helen Oyeyemi was just twenty years old when she found her literary fame. At the time it set me wondering whether, as with many jobs, there was a ‘sell by date’ for authors so anyone one hoping to retire and write as a new career is wasting their time. No room on the overcrowded shelves for the silver sagas.
Is youth favoured by agents and publishers who can see a long relationship with their authors who will improve and go on to produce the best seller to make both parties rich and famous? Younger writers are certainly more media and tech savvy and have a greater awareness that writing is also about marketing, PR, social media, networking and selling. I do speak to older writers who can be quite huffy, if not resistant, about the commercial side of the writing business.
It’s hard to prove that there is an age prejudice in today’s publishing world but there is some evidence to show that some writers peak too early and burn themselves out and that others come into their own in later life. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in his fifties and Mary Wesley defied convention by becoming a best- selling author aged seventy.
David Galenson, University of Chicago, wrote an excellent paper on this very subject:-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Careers of Modern Novelists.
After a successful business running my own international training consultancy, I retired in my late fifties and spent a year following a family death wandering about in my own head not knowing which direction lay my future. Write a book I was told as if it was something to knock up in a couple of months, slap between two covers and hey presto. One thing I did know was that unless you want to write a family memoir or a story for the grandchildren, you have to take a business like approach. It meant launching a new career aged sixty as a novelist. That meant training, researching, tons of reading and analysis of writing styles, format and structure. If you’re not prepared to draft and redraft several times, cutting out your favourite characters you’re sure everyone will love and cutting and remoulding your plot then serious writing isn’t for you. Aging means more time for these things but speaking from experience less energy for anything that’s not creatively stimulating. It’s not a career for anyone needing an income or to top up a pension because it won’t happen unless you write for the market and can read a crystal ball. The former makes it a drudge, the latter makes you a genius.
When approaching a outlet for your work, except if you plan to self-publish, don’t mention the fact you’ve retired. If you’re writing full time then you’ve got a new career. Give the impression you’ve got energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to engage with the commercial activities all publishers require. You have to do everything possible to make your book sell and if that sounds exhausting then think again. Painting or fishing might be a more relaxing hobby because from personal experience I can say I have never worked harder in my life than I do now. Up at seven, write till lunch time, an hour’s exercise, articles, blogging, networking, social media, and editing in the afternoon. I can easily put in a twelve hour day and my head is still buzzing with creative ideas as it hits the pillow.
When I wrote my debut novel, The Cruelty of Lambs, I didn’t expect to write another. Once it was sitting proudly on my bookshelves and those of my family, I felt a bit like a new mother who’s told not to leave it too late before the next one.
The advice I was given was not to be a one-trick pony. Publishers invest in a brand. Brand You. From career novelists they expect at least a book a year depending on their schedule and after all it’s usually book four or five that makes your name and rewards their gamble on you.
Publishing has changed so much in the last thirty years. It’s a media business and publishers are looking for the right image, an approachable author, added value and of course the next big thing. More mature women writers might feel discouraged as they age when it comes to their appearance and the camera. I certainly wouldn’t have cosmetic surgery to hide my age. I’m proud of being an older writer and celebrate my authenticity, silver hair and laughter lines.