Forty is the age after which we are no longer eligible to be up-and-coming (there are no “50 under 50” lists), the time in life when we should be well-established in our fields, sitting at the big desk running the show rather than just starting out.
If, when I was a little girl in San Antonio, Texas, dreaming of being a writer when I grew up, you had told me that at 40 I would be hard at work not on my third or my fourth novel but on my first, I would have wondered what on earth had gone wrong. And as the founder of the world’s largest online community for women writers, I personally know writers who have written not three or four novels by 40, but five or six.
When you hear “debut novelist” you don’t think “middle-aged,” but I am both, and not afraid to shout it from the rooftops. Here are my five tips for how to write your first book over 40, starting with leveraging the No. 1 advantage someone over 40 has in writing a first book: being over 40.
1. Write what you know
We’ve all heard the old adage: Write what you know. But as a first-time author over 40, you have a tremendous resource that no 22-year-old debut writer can possibly possess: your life. The experiences and the worlds you have inhabited will provide you with rich material for your writing. And don’t forget that it isn’t just your life that holds untold emotional and narrative riches; it’s the lives of everyone around you, too.
For my book, I wrote about a divorced mother of two boys, something I knew well as a mother who’d gone through a divorce. But I also wanted to write about the world of work for women, and for that part of my main character’s life I drew heavily on the experiences of my younger sister, whose career I’ve had a front-row seat to witness for more than two decades now. I never could have written my book 20 years ago; and frankly, given the choice between reading a 45-year-old’s debut novel and a 25-year-old’s, I’d take my chances on the 45-year-old’s any day. (Hello Laura Ingalls Wilder, George Eliot and Frank McCourt.)
2. Read like a writer
Hopefully, if writing a book interests you, you are already a prodigious reader. (There is no better training for writing than reading.) Reading like a writer, however, is a particular approach. When you begin to read like a writer, you observe how successful writers use structure, rhythm, and point of view, in addition to a whole host of other things you’ll need to make decisions about as you begin your own book. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is a fabulous guide.
3. Don’t rush it
I struggled with this one big time. Being older and writing my first novel, I was in a hurry to get it done. I felt like I had so much catching up to do that I couldn’t afford to dillydally. But good writing takes time — particularly for a book-length project — and patience and self-forgiveness are key.
I mention self-forgiveness because it’s very likely that the first idea you come up with, or even the first full-length manuscript you complete, won’t be what you publish as your debut. I worked on a novel idea for two years before realizing it was going nowhere and starting Wishful Thinking. I try to look at those years not as a waste but as part of a process, one I had to go through to get where I wanted to go. Reading books about writing can be enormously helpful in providing the perspective you need: I recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Stephen King’s On Writing, two classics of the genre.
4. Find a writing community
One of the hardest things about writing a book later in life is feeling like a fraud. It’s hard to utter the sentence “I am a writer” when you don’t yet have a published book to show for it — especially when you are of a certain age. But it’s harder still to work in isolation, for hours every day, on something you love, without being able to say “I am a writer” to others who understand and respect what that means.
Taking a writing class is a great way to meet other writers who are just starting out, as is attending a writers’ conference. Online communities like the one I founded, SheWrites, and others like A Room Of Her Own Foundation and the Hedgebrook Writers Colony, are also great places to find support, exchange tips and even meet a writing buddy or two. I also recommend Lori A. May’s book The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life. Lori emphasizes that new writers need to be generous as they build their networks, supporting other writers not just by taking (advice, tips, etc.), but by giving (buying books, attending events, etc.).
5. Do it for love
The worst reason to write a book is because you want to be able to say you are an author. The best reason to write a book is because you have something to say. If you set out to write because you think once you publish (if you publish), your whole life will change and you will be able to quit your day job, you are going to be disappointed. (The majority of authors considered to be “successful” still don’t make a living at it full-time.) If you can stay focused on your motivation for writing your book and remind yourself of it with pride when you publish, you’ll tap another asset that over-40 writers bring to the debut author’s game: perspective. As I can tell you at this moment, with my fingers crossed and heart in my throat as I put my first novel out into the world — you’ll need it.