Friday, June 28, 2019

Is It Too Late? Successful Publishing After Forty, Fifty, Sixty?

Writers can become successes at any age--we know that, and we know it's the quality and timeliness of their work that makes that success come true.  But older writers, many in my classes, often comment on how challenged they feel competing with younger writers who have decades ahead of them.  "Agents want to know you have books in your future," said one of my students last week.  "I'm not sure how many I can promise at sixty-five."  Another worried about her appearance--was it current enough to promote if her book did well?

Recently I spent time in Santa Fe and visited the Georgia O'Keeffe museum. Although O'Keeffe was successful as an artist in her younger years, she really came into her own as a painter after she moved to Ghost Ranch.  Most admirers of her work know her later pieces, the flowers and desert landscapes.  Watching a film of her speaking about her artistic journey, I was reminded how much age contributes to any art.

I've genre-hopped most of my career, not really caring that I was fifty when I went back to school for an MFA in fiction because I wanted to learn the craft after decades of publishing in nonfiction.  I didn't think of my age when I sold my first novel, or when I signed with my second agent, who only represents fiction.  The agent asked what else I was working on, and I could've taken that as a subtle inquiry about what I had left to produce, but I didn't. 

Recently I heard from Christina Kelly, a past student from my classes at Hudson Valley Writer's Center in New York.  She's a good success story for publishing after fifty.  So I asked her a few questions for this blog post.

About 2012, after Christina's husband retired, they moved to Savannah.  "For us," she says, "retirement wasn't relaxing into an armchair of late middle age but a tornado of adventure. There's quite a lot of humor in the foibles of aging, the complexities of retirement, and the quirks of a long marriage, so I just started writing short scenes."
She also joined a writing group. "Meeting bi-weekly with four like-minded women was (and continues to be) invaluable," she says. "Having a deadline, even if it's just for my small group, is imperative, otherwise I would rework a chapter until there were nothing left but erasures. And, no, I never set it aside for more than a week at a time." 
It took a while, but Christina's first novel came together when she understood what motivated her  characters, she told me. "I had vague plot details mapped out, but until I really got to know who each character was and what he or she wanted, I felt as if I were sometimes writing in circles. The ending came quickly and was completely different (and stronger) than what I had envisioned. Instead of a hurricane, there's an alligator. Who knew?!"
Then she considered publishing.  She'd written for magazines, so she says she understood the importance of a clean manuscript and a clear query letter. But since it had been years since she'd worked in book publishing [at Random House], she read several blogs and newsletters.  Then the happiness began. "A friend of a friend who worked at HarperCollins offered to take a look at my agent pitch letter and synopsis," Christina says. "She read them, asked for the full manuscript, enjoyed it, and-miraculously-sent it to editorial. A few days later, an executive editor called to ask who my agent was. She told me she wanted to buy the book. Good karma, indeed."

Her debut novel, Good Karma, was published in 2016. (Check it out, and her website.)
I asked her about any advice she'd share with other debut writers.
"Understand the way that works for you and stick with it," she advised. "Don't give up. With some people it's pounding out a first draft at a crowded cafe. For me, it's writing by hand in a notebook--I know, so old-fashioned!"

Christina writes best in the early morning, so it certainly helps to have a supportive spouse who understands she won't be around for breakfast. And possibly lunch. 

"Since I was 54 when Good Karma was published, I'm certainly not going to set any land speed records, but I really feel like I've found my own quirky voice and have stories about aging and rediscovery that need to be told."

And if you need more convincing, here are a couple of cool links to articles about writers who succeeded late in life.  This one, from Mental Floss, has some surprising names (go to and search for the topic if the link doesn't work).  And another one from Cheat Sheet.   

No comments:

Post a Comment