Why New Novelists Are Kinda Old, or, Hey, Publishing is Slow
Posted on June 24, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 185 Comments
From the e-mail pile today:
Whenever I hear about a “new” novelist, they turn out to be in their 30s. Why is that? It seems like you hear about new musicians and actors and other creative people in when they are in their 20s.
Excellent question. Leaving aside the mechanics of why it pays to be young in the music and acting industries, here’s what’s up with those old new novelists:
1. Writing an entire novel is something most people have to work up to. Because you know what? Writing sixty to one hundred thousand words of fiction is not something most people cannonball through, even if they assure you, with the appropriate amount of false modesty, that they’re really better at long-form fiction. Maybe they are, but they still had a long walk to get there. I’m better at long-form and it took me until I was 28 before I could do it. Meanwhile I’d been writing short for years up to that point, in the form of reviews and columns and humor pieces and (yes) occasional attempts at short fiction that I mostly abandoned after a page or two. Lots of people in their teens and early 20s start novels; rather fewer finish them.
Why? Well, some of them start novels and finish short stories, which is a surprise both for the would-be novelist and the would-be novel. Others (and this included me in my 20s) start writing something that they thought might be a book-length idea, only to find not only did it not qualify as a short story, it was better for everyone involved if the stunted, weird thing was taken behind the tool shed, whacked with a shovel and buried without anyone else knowing it ever existed.
Some others actually finish a whole novel-length pile of words whose best quality, alas, is that it gave its author a chance to exercise his or her fingers. The erstwhile author realizes that making it into a novel would require pulling it apart and starting over, and the thought of doing so fills them with same joy as they might get from sucking down a Dran-O mojito. So the not-actually-a-novel gets stuffed into the proverbial drawer or trunk, never again to see the light of day.
All of this, incidentally, is perfectly fine. Craftsmen don’t make their masterpiece the first time they approach a potter’s wheel (or whatever). Most writers aren’t going to write a brilliant or even passable novel the first time they sit down in front of a keyboard and intone (to themselves if no one else) that today is the day they will commit art, in a convenient, novel-sized package. They usually have to work up to it, one way or another. That takes time, just as learning any craft takes time.
And when people do finally manage to write something that is actually identifiable to anyone else but the author as a novel, guess what?
2. Most people’s first novels well and truly suck. Oh my, yes they do. Which again is perfectly fine. Writing anything over 60,000 words that still recognizably tells one single story is a hell of an achievement in itself. Asking that it also be good is just being mean to the author, and the novel. It’s like watching someone run their first full-length marathon, ever, and criticizing them for not finishing in the top ten. I mean, shit. That can be the goal for the second race, right?
Most first novels are no damn good. Second ones are often better, but not always, and often not by much. Third and fourth novels, the same thing. Fact is — and this should not be news at this late date — ask most debut novelists how many novels they wrote before they got one published, and you’ll find out the answer is: two, three, four — sometimes more. Debut novels are almost never first novels; they’re just the first novels you see. And all those other novels you will never know about? They took lots of time to write, too.
Which brings us to the next point:
3. The physical act of writing a novel takes a long time. Yes, we all know of the authors who can crank out a perfectly publishable novel of 60, or 80, or 100,000 words in just under six weeks. But there are two things to note. First, most of those hyperkinetic authors are not newbie novelists; they’re people who have been writing long enough that certain aspects of novel writing are encoded into their brain’s muscle memory. Second, if you’re a would-be novelist, you’ll probably never be one of those people anyway.
No, I’m not intending to insult you. Most currently published authors don’t write that quickly either. I know successful, working authors who are happy to get 250 words of fiction a day, because that’s 90,000 words a year: A full-sized novel. But consider that there are any number of writers who have trouble getting out that much out a year, because — surprise! — a novel is usually more than just sitting down and cranking out a word count. There are those little things like plot, and character, and pacing, and dialogue and so on and so forth. All of those things take time to develop.
Note also that while you’re doing all of this as a budding novelist, you are also most likely doing all the other things in your life that constitute your life: A day job, spouse and family, hobbies and friends, reading and television and video games and even (wait for it) sleep. It all adds up — and it all subtracts from the amount of time you have to write.
What all this means is that writing those three or four novels an average writer has to burn through before they write a publishable novel will likely take years.
But hey! A budding novelist has put in the time and the work and the effort and has sacrificed numerous innocent, trusting pizzas to the Gods of Writing, and has finally got a novel good enough to sell. Good for them. Now it’s time for the next point:
4. Selling a novel takes a long time. At this point, like the Game of Life™, there are two paths a would-be novelist can go by. The first path is the path of Finding an Agent. This path takes more time but potentially opens the door to more publishers, because most publishers these days require agented submissions.
Finding an agent is a slog. One has to query the agent, wait to see if the query is accepted, and then if it is sample chapters and an outline go out in the mail. Then more waiting to see if the agent asks for more. If he or she does, it’s time to send the whole manuscript and then wait again to see if he or she thinks the writer is worth their time to represent. At any point the agent can say “no,” at which point our budding novelist will have to start over again.
But if the agent says “yes,” then comes the part where he or she starts schlepping the novel to publishers. Presuming the agent gets a publishing house interested in looking at the manuscript, it could be weeks or even months before there’s response, either positive or negative. If it’s the latter, it’s on to the next publisher.
The second path is the Path of the Slush Pile. This gets the work out there quicker but fewer publishers still accept unagented manuscripts, and as you might guess from the name “slush pile,” the rate at which editors work through the slush pile is pretty slow. Baen Books, which accepts unagented manuscripts, lists their response time as nine to twelve months: Yes, you could make a baby (if you can make a baby) before our poor theoretical writer here would hear back about their literary child. And if at the end of those nine months to a year Baen (or whomever) says no, the poor writer has to start all over again.
And along either path, there’s no assurance that the novel — despite being of publishable quality — will sell (this is where I refer you to Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s evergreen “Slushkiller” piece, which details why). This means that at some point the writer may have to give up the ghost on this particular novel and move on to try to sell the next one — which of course, they were busy writing while they were waiting for that other one to sell.
All of this — you are sensing the theme by now — takes lots of time.
But wait! Despite the myriad challenges, a novel has actually been sold! Excellent. Now guess what?
5. Publishing a novel often takes a long time. Once a book has an offer, there’s the time it takes to work through the contract . Then the editing process begins — it’s very likely the editor working with the writer will want tweaks and edits to the novel. This round of editing takes time, depending both on how much work the book needs and how well the writer takes direction during the editing process. After that comes the copy editing, with the writer required to go through the manuscript, answering copy editor queries and signing off on the edits. And beyond this is all the production stuff the writer is not directly involved with, like cover art, interior and cover desig, and so on and so forth. This, yes, takes time.
But even when that’s done there’s more waiting! That’s because the publisher will need to find a spot for the novel on its release schedule, one that allows it to highlight the work and also gives it time to secure publicity and advance reviews and all that good stuff. That spot on the release schedule may be a year or even two in the future. This is the part that really drives writers nuts: Everything’s done and yet, no book. It’s madness, I tell you.
So, let’s recap: It takes time for most people to learn how to write to novel-length. It takes time to write well at that length. It takes time to write to that length. It takes time to land a publisher and it takes time to get that novel to market. And suddenly, it makes sense why so many debut novelists just happen to be in their thirties.
You want a real world example, you say. Fine, take me. I’ll note my own path to publication has some irregularities in it, but overall it works well enough for these purposes. Ready? Here it is. The number at the end of each line tells you how old I was each step of the way:
1969 – 1997: Time spent learning to write well enough to write a novel (28).
1997: Wrote first complete novel (28)
1997 – 2001: Life intervenes and keeps me away from fiction (32).
2001: Wrote second novel (32)
2002: Offer made on second novel, now my debut novel (33)
2003: Contract signed for debut novel (33)
2004: Editing and early publicity for debut novel (35)
2005: Debut novel published (35)
2006: Won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (37)
So, eight years from first completed novel to having a debut novel in the bookstores, and four years between completing the debut novel and it being published in book form. And if you think it’s ironic to win a “Best New Writer” award at the ripe old age of 37, consider that 37 is pretty much the average age of the Campbell winners over the last 35 years. “New” does not equal “young.”
Having said all of that, it’s worth noting that a whole stack of writers have managed to get novels published while they were in their twenties — it’s not that huge a trick to do so . These debuts are not necessarily any worse (or better) than those of authors who debut in their 30s or later. Some writers are publishable more quickly, some are in the right place at the right time with the right books, and some people are simply unfathomably lucky.
Also, at this point in time there are more authors who are willing to attempt self-publishing — either online or through print-on-demand — thus avoiding the whole “finding a publisher” time suck. We could have a debate on whether this is wise, from the point of view of distribution, publicity, marketing and/or writers debuting before their work is worth reading, but that’s a debate for another entry. The fact of the matter is that if you self-publish, your debut as a novelist will undoubtedly come sooner.
But for the folks who do it the old-fashioned way — and, currently, the way that still affords them the best chance for notoriety and a chance at a long-term career as a novelist — the combination of writing skill development and the mechanics of contemporary publishing conspires to drive the age of most debut novelists into the thirties. It doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
So writing a novel is an old man’s war, huh?
Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.
i know you did not just call me old.
Peter S. Beagle wrote A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE at the age of *19*.
It makes me want to cry every time I think of that little fact.
Reminds me of something from Dave Sim, the (nutbar) creator of “Cerebus the Aardvark”, who would occasionally come up with some wit or wisdom, but lapsed into solipsistic wankery. Here’s a bit of the wisdom, though: “Every comic artist has 10,000 bad pages within him before he’ll draw a good one. So start drawing now.”
Ammonite was my ‘first’ novel. I was 32. But there were two whole long (oh, long long long) novels in the drawer by then. The first million words, everybody’s 1st million words, suck. That’s just the way of the world.
Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon beginning when he was 15 and was already a published bestselling author at 19. Pretty impressive even for those who might otherwise scoff at his work for being “Young Adult”. I have to say I enjoyed his three books so far nearly as much as your’s John, which is definitely intended as a compliment ;)
It’s worth noting that he was home schooled, something which is often a cause of derision amongst average pretentious America. I’ve never really understood why getting what is often a superior education is looked down upon by so many, other than the fact that many homeschoolers do it for religious or moral reasons, in addition to the quality of education. Then again, having been homeschooled from grades 3-7 and entering public high school far ahead of my peers academically, I may be somewhat biased.
John, thanks for sharing!
I’d love to hear what you think about the vanity press, about “authors” (I’m using this term in the loosest sense possible) –self-publish their debut novels and strut around like actual published writers. I’ve seen many vanity “authors” (science fiction and fantasy “authors” in particular) in person in places like Tokyo, Seoul, and Vancouver. I’ve seen them actually signing copies of their “novels” in small used bookstores and libraries, answering questions from whatever relation was kind enough to drop by. I even bought two of the “novels.” I was robbed. The two highly praised self-published books that I bought were rife with about every error conceivable in the English language. The books weren’t copyedited, edited, the book design, both interior and exterior, looked they were done on TRASH 80s.
Even the lines were unjustified!
They put of websites, filmed actual “interviews” with themselves, and stand in front of tens of people (though from the IV drips, I knew had been pulled from the senior citizen home across the street) in the library like they’re TOR authors or whatever.
I couldn’t believe this author in Seoul last year, selling his snake oil with a Cheshire smile. The used bookstore is full of his books now, copies that looked like they weren’t read, gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. He even had the audacity to charge 20,000 WON, like $25 for his tradebacks. You get 2000 WON from the used bookstore, now sell for 5000 WON, six bucks. I gave in and bought one, literally destroyed it the next night, Put it out of its misery. He should entitled it “Incoherent Drivel: The Death of Spellcheck.”
PS This is not autobiographical.
From one of your previous interviews, you obviously have strong negative feelings about the vanity press.
So, following your link, of the most recent 10 Campbell winners, 9 have at least a birth year in their Wikipedia pages, most an entire date. I don’t guarantee I got them all right, but it looks like the ages of those 9 on winning were: 38, 29, 38, 40, 40, 35, 37, 34, 39. Average is not quite 37. All except Cory were within 3 years of 37.
That’s really pretty amazingly close together.
Whenever I feel like I’m too damn old to start doing this writing thing as more than a hobby – I’m 39 and working on my first real novel after writing myriad short stories, a produced short screenplay, and numerous long essays – you write a column that makes me feel much better about what I feel is a late start date.
I spent time in the Navy, a bad marriage, getting an Associates Degree (the best seven years of my life), finding and spending time with my biological father, distancing myself from the rest of my family, marrying the perfect woman for me and having my very own daughter. I’ve spent most of my time up til now living life and learning about the world. Now it’s time to achieve the last true goal I have in my life – to be a published writer.
I can get 500 – 1000 words a day easily – the idea that some professionals think 250 a day is great is a bit baffling, but again, comforting. I’m 6000 words into this project, and so far, I like what I see. I know the plot, the players, and the resolution. I know most major events and attitudes throughout. And I am fully prepared to let it suck until the rewrite.
Anyway, this is all good stuff, John, and timely as well. Thank you again for these columns – it’s almost as if you should write a book about writing a book. ;)
In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, he makes the case that it takes 10 000 hours of practise to get good at anything (about five years of eight hour days, or considerably longer if you’re doing it around your day job, rather than as your day job).
I’m also reminded of Neil Gaiman’s frequent injunction to young writers that you normally need to have a well of experience – something to write about.
As a friend of mine once pointed out, these factors (together with the reasons mentioned in the post) go a long way towards explaining why there are fewer bad novels in the world than than poems (and fewer bad operas than bad songs).
Not that there is a shortage in any of these categories, mind you.
After many years of trying to write a novel I stopped. I never completed one. Finished screenplays, comics, short stories but the novel eluded me.
I had a few near misses on my other writing attempts and then walked away from writing completely (including my job working for a newspaper which I really didn’t like).
After about five years (age 28) I wrote a children’s book novel. It was really short and only qualified as a novel because it was for children around 8 to 10 years old. It was also really bad and I knew it. I stopped writing again but it was never far from my thoughts.
Last year I took another stab at a young adult novel (now age 40). It was better and longer but still not what I was after. I tried to save this book by rewriting it but never felt like I was telling the story I wanted.
Unlike my past attempts. I put it aside and dove right into the next one (age 41). This one aimed at teenagers. It was my longest attempt (82,000 words) and easily my best. I am now on my third rewrite of that book. I plan to let a few people read it and do a 4th rewrite. Then it will be time to let it loose and send it off to an agent.
I have no illusions of it being published but I am proud that I finished it. I will be diving into writing the next book shortly. It took me a long time to apparently reach the point in my life where I have the confidence, the stamina, and the willingness to really work at making a book right.
Writing is hard because of how long it takes to reach publication. It is hard because you will often spend large periods of your life on something that will never see publication. Most of my friends (back in the early 18-25 days) gave up and never came back. It took me forever to get my mind to a place where I cared more about the book then the so called riches that my younger self was sure were waiting for me.
Thanks for a great blog John.
Umm, Christopher Paolini’s parents are publishers.
Kinda helps to have that in the ‘ol back pocket if you want to get published early.
Great article by the way
What a great post, and thanks to Patty Jansen for recommending it so highly. Particularly interesting as I’m lamost done reading Less Than Zero which was, of course, published when Brett Easton Ellis was 21.
One point about musicians – whilst we hear about breakthrough successes in their 20s, most of these have been practising since their teens. Black swans aside (which are fascinating to talk about but not much use trying to emulate), it’s not the length of time trying that separates musical from literary breakthroughs, it’s the age you start. And that has to do with the structure of the product, I’m guessing (if only poetry weren’t such a ridiculously hard genre to succeed in, there might be sufficient data to compare the age of breakthrough poets and novelists. As it is the term breakthrough poet probably just provokes wry smiles).
I have to say my first novel sucked. My second novel sucked too, but I plucked up the courage to send it to agents, one of whom was kind enough to tell me it didn’t suck. My third novel doesn’t suck – but I’m a prolific writer from what I gather (a novel takes 6-9 months from start to 20-somethingth draft), and it’s still taken 2 years (3 demo tapes wouldn’t take 2 years – you can go through the iterative process of reworking, feedback, reworking many more times as a musician in the same time – I guess songwriting is the artistic equivalent of geneticists using drosophila).
Which is where I want to take issue on self-publishing – with R.J. not John. I’ve had several agents tell me my latest novel deosn’t suck, but they – like me – know it’s got a market of a couple of thousand and that’s not enough to get a publisher to shell, right? I mean, even with Berlin Wall anniversary celebrations looming, there aren’t too many disaffected teens and nostalgic 30-somethings who want to read about a teenage girl struggling to work out who she is in post-communist Hungary. No matter how many talking cats and exquisite metaphors I stuff in there.
So I got together with 20 other writers to start Year Zero Writers, a collective of self-publishers for people who write amazing prose (I’m the gobbby bossy one, so I got away with simply having a book that doesn’t suck) that’s cutting edge and contemporary but has too small a market for a traditional business model. We have a very specific market (urban indie) that we all know and can find, so marketing doesn’t cost much. And we’re all prolific, so a book a year at that turnover will do us nicely, even if we never “break through”.
What I don’t get is the assumption self-published means bad quality. It just means I pay the printer direct (or not, if you find the very best POD), and not a middle man. It means more control, and it’s the model publishers will adopt (see my guest blog on flatter publishing models – http://streamwriting.com/blog/?p=116). I have a professionally designed cover, I’ve had my novel copy-edited 3 times, and it’s typeset to within an inch of its life by someone who does it professionally.
Anyway, back on topic. I think if writing a comment and reading the post has made me think anything it’s this – why the heck can’t we get more people to buy more printed poetry?
There’s a lot of good advice in this, and it makes me reconsider some of my positions on various things, especially self-publishing.
I’m wondering what exactly the dangers are of self-publishing on-line before you’re readable? As far as I can tell, when you’re truly unreadable people just don’t read you. Of course the internet isn’t perfect at just giving readers to good stuff and no traffic at all to bad stuff, but it seems to work pretty well. I certainly don’t read something if I don’t find it entertaining and I’m always willing to read something that does grab my attention.
What I find to be much more dangerous is when you’re an okay writer, and you self-publish on-line, and people tell you you’re perfect. I’ve seen that become a trap for a lot of people who think that because they’ve got a couple of thousand people on-line who love them that they don’t need to work anymore.
Sometimes when you build a readership on-line, the relationship becomes more important to your readers than the work. I know it’s not possible for every egg to be golden, but I find it very alarming when readers no longer discern between the goose crap and the gold.
This may just be me confounding the issue. I know it can happen with writers who have a very long career as well, but it seems very immediate on-line and I find it worrisome.
So…does it then follow that those other types of creative pursuits, like acting and playing, don’t require much in the way of actual craftsmanship, at least not as performed by todays lawn-encroaching youngsters?
Hell, at the relatively young age of 50, there is still hope for me, look at how many started much above 37!!!! Might even get published before I retire…
Dan Holloway @ 13:
What I don’t get is the assumption self-published means bad quality. It just means I pay the printer direct…
But what it primarily means, at least to me as a consumer, is that there’s been no editorial gatekeeping going on. No one but the author (and probably his/her Mom) thought this work was publishable. It might be, of course, but since there’s been no quality control, the consumer can’t know that without actually buying and reading the book. Frankly, that’s like asking people to pay for reading slush.
Good post. All I can add is that I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, was over 50 when The Big Sleep was published. So I figure I’ve got time. (At least ten years.)
Dan — I agree on the “age you start” thing. I got serious about writing when I was eighteen, finished my second novel just before my twentieth birthday, sold it when I was twenty-four, saw it on the shelves when I was twenty-five and a half. Given the time factors John mentions, you really do have to get out of bed pretty damn early (or hit some exceedingly lucky, not to mention fast, breaks) to see yourself in print before you’re thirty.
Of course, I have no idea how long it takes your average musician to put together an album. That, more than a song, is probably the closest comparison possible between the two fields.
My neighbor (Jenn Crowell) was discovered in a writers workshop and published at 17. I do think she is a really good writer and I enjoy her work. However, from what I can tell (and this is speculative and not speaking from any position of authority) her early success has been really hard for her. It almost seems as if the novelty of discovering such a mature writer at such a young age gave her a lot of attention and then even though her subsequent work was just as good, people’s expectations were too high or the novelty had worn off of promoting a young author or something like that. She still writes and is working on an MFA, but I think she was almost hyped too much, too early before she could really adjust and hit her prime. I think she has more good stuff to come. Don’t know what my point is as I am not in the publishing business, just that younger doesn’t always mean an easier road, I guess.
I apologize for the typos and grammatical detours on my last posting. I’m an elementary school teacher in Seoul, South Korea. I was on “bully watch” when I wrote it, mind on the bully, “Stormin’ Norm” pushing kids around outside my classroom like a tsunami. His mom says he won’t storming in the morrow.
[13. Dan Holloway] I’m on your side, trust me. I love indie writers. I’m a supporter of indie writers, if they’re naturally gifted. I go to your readers, give you the benefit of the doubt. In reference to science fiction and fantasy writers, though, I just think there are too many vanity writers lobbing their first drafts onto Amazon without so much as a basic rewrite. If you self-publish your manuscript a vanity press like Lulu, you can literally purchase generally-vague positive reviews from Clarion and Kirkus. For $400, Kirkus Review will provide you with a jacket blurb and whatnot. Thus, you can have one of your buddies throw together a cover on Photoshop, include the Kirkus Review, do the interior layout on MS Word and upload the pdf cover and text files to their site. Within a month of self-publising with Lulu, the book is listed on Amazon.
You’re a published writer!
I have nothing against vanity press writers, don’t get me wrong. I just think they should respect their readers more. If you’re going to self-publish a 300 pages science fiction novel, then edit the damn thing. Hell, do whatever it takes and have it professionally edited. And for the love of god, be willing to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the damn thing. Streamline it, take out the self-indulgent and flowery crap, rearrange chapters, delete whole sections of the book for the sake of the greater story. Give the science fiction reader what they’re paying for: a good read, a thought-provoking read if you’re that good. But not just from anyone. If the writer doesn’t respect his writing enough to actually have it proofread, copyedited, edited, whatever, then how can they honestly say that they respect their readers?
Though I have yet to work with an editor, I would swim the Pacific Ocean to have TOR’s Patrick Nielson Hayden edit my debut novel. But it ain’t going to happen. He lives in a parallel universe, as far as I’m concerned. But I’d like to say that I can see his influence on Scalzi’s and Doctorow’s writing, particularly since they both debuted their novels online, before Hayden had gotten around to shaping them. Having an editor of his stature is paramount to your success in the big bad publishing world.
I don’t know anything about agents, but they’re obviously an integral part of a writer’s life, their umbilical cord to mother pub.
One last thing about self-publising and self-marketing yourself as an indie writer. Just because you’re a good public speaker and have somehow managed to string together 60,000 words into a story arc or whatever, doesn’t mean you’re a writer per se. Scalzi and Doctorow are awesome public speakers, but for good reason. They know the heck they’re talking about. They’ve done the time. There are too many writers looking for shortcuts, for a back door into the publishing world. That’s all I’m saying.
That said, perhaps the world of self-publishing needs more writers like you Dan. I’ll be looking for your debut novel on Amazon. Good luck, man.
I’m logged in as Year Zero Writers, but it’s me, Dan Holloway.
It’s fascinating you should say this as a reader because my experience has tended to be it’s writers not readers who see a stigma.
What I really don’t want to do is make readers take a “punt” on my book – why should they? I firmly believe in a musician-like model, givng people free electronic copies of my work so they can judge for themselves. I am organising free-e-day (http://freeeday.wordpress.com/) in order to allow independent writers/musicians etc and the public to find each other, and offer/receive free electronic copies of indie culture.
My book is available in full online from the Year Zero website, and I’m writing my current novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes “live” on a Facebook group of the same name. I am happy to give my work away at this stage of my career, because I’m happy I have something worth reading, and I want to show people what the quality they can expect is. That way when they say “Why shoudl I buy your book from Amazon when you’re unsigned?” I can say “read two of my novels for free and see if you like them.” My experience of being a music fan is that if you do this with something really good, people will come back and buy. No risk to either party. So anyone who wants to read a novel about a teenage girl coming of age in post-communist Hungary, just pop over – the first chapter’s on the site. E-mail me and I’ll send the full pdf
Guys, the place to advertise your self-published work and/or “indie site” is in one of my occasional pimp posts, not this thread. Take that as a hint for going forward, please.
I didn’t sell my first novel; it was something like #14 or #16.
But I’m a freak — I began writing the sodding things when I was fifteen, which is much too young.
One of the things you have to master is human interest — having enough insight into the human condition to write stuff that other people will consider to be worth reading. That usually takes life experience, hence part of the problem of first novels sucking. (How much insight into the human condition do you think I had, at age 15?)
Dude, huge apologies if that’s aimed at me. The “why should readers take a plunge on an untried book?” is a really interesting question and I was trying to illustrate what I thought the best approach for writers to take was (responding to Erin’s point). Can I ask you delete my post if you think it sounds spammy, please? The last thing in hell I wanna do is have people think I’m pushing anything. Just trying to make the most informed point I can about a hugely important debate.
I think I have to acknowledge that at the age of 48, I’m never going to write a novel, let alone a publishable one. Never even finished a passable short story. I just can’t stand the thought of writing those million words of rubbish first. (Though maybe I can count a few thousand internet comments towards that total? No?)
Kind of a nute-and-bolts question that I’m just curious about – do authors still do their questing for agent/publisher with hard-copy manuscripts, or are things done electronically now?
Hmmm… I wonder what the stats are like for other Campbell finalists (but not enough to do the work).
My first published novel was released on the first of this month. Next month, I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday (we’re having a big party, John, come on by). I beat my self-imposed deadline by nearly two months!
As a writer in my 50’s slogging through my first novel, this was at first depressing. Then I re-read it and realized I know all this already from having talked to many authors and studying the dynamics of the publishing biz.
So am I going to not bother to edit the first draft I just finished? NO. I am going to edit it to the best of my ability, send out the agent queries, and while the first book gets trashed by agents I will write the second book. I may be in my sixties before I get published but at least I will have given it my best shot.
Thanks as always for your insights.
#27 there’s a real mix of agents who take e-mail and hard copy submissions. In the UK, Eve White is the only one I can think of off the top of my head who openly takes e-mail, but many agencies will ask for the full ms as an e-mail submission, even if not the initial query. There is a database somewhere online that gives this information, and Writers and Artists’ Yearbook has some detailed listings for e-mail vs hard copy.
That was an amazing amount of words for an explanation that boils down to “life experience, perseverance and practice.” Thanks for filling in the details though and using yourself as an example.
One of my best friends has been writing for years, and is now 30. He’s written 5 novels (4 complete, 1 mostly complete when we decided it wasn’t working).
I’m his primary editor, and I told him truthfully that his first book, while interesting to me since I was his friend, was not great. He was in his early 20’s, and he couldn’t write dialogue. So he wrote a lot of short stories to improve that, before the second attempt. Second novel was never finished, because it wasn’t what he wanted, and I didn’t think it was a new enough concept to do the overhaul.
His 3rd and 4th novels are his babies, and we spent months editing and polishing them. We put them on Lulu, because we knew that they would be a hard sell to any agent, not because of the quality of the writing, but because of the genre.
So now we come to novel five. I think this is the novel that will see him published by a real press. It’s a genre that sells, the story and characters are new and not derivative. The plot line is good, and it has good pacing. It took him 10 years to get to the point that I think he’s ready to really throw himself out there. As soon as we finish our second round of editing we are going to start querying agents.
It’s been a long road, but I’ve seen his writing develop over the last 10 years. His evolution as a writer has been fascinating to watch.
Hopefully someday in the next few years he’ll have a copy of his book in his hands, and all his effort will have payed off. However, I think that even if he never gets published, he’ll not consider the time he spent writing as a waste of time. I know that I don’t consider the time and effort I’ve put into making his books better has been worth it to me.
John, Dan, others
Sorry, John, I found this post in my daily feed and copied the link to the forum at Authonomy, because some people over there had been discussing the subject ‘why are there so few young published writers’.
To me, this post illustrates the level of commitment you need to learn and improve at writing. It’s not primarily about age. Getting published is about patience, and while we exercise our patience, we learn. You don’t expect a first year medical student to perfom eye surgery either.
I feel a self-publishing author is at risk of taking shortcuts in the learning process. Book finished? Stick it on Lulu. Presto: one published writer. I know that people who take their craft seriously won’t do it as easily as that, but I’ve seen it happen often enough. Just yesterday I was browsing a site where work from an author I respect is ‘published’ alongside work from an author who could *cough, cough* use a LOT of guidance. I am lucky, because I know both of them through other venues and have read their work. I can choose the writer whose work is readable, but what about the general public?
That’s exactly the point I was trying to get at, Patty. A self-published author should be prepared to let readers sample their work for free, just like musicians do. That way no one pays out for rubbish. I think it’s a really valid business model for an aspiring author, just as it is for an aspiring band.
Self-publishing is great for one type of book—the type not already found in bookstores.
So, got a kooky religion you just started? Self-publish your revelations.
Are you an expert on the small but growing hobby of freeze-dried banana peel sculptures and all sorts of people look at your flickr site and ask you how it’s done? Self-publish.
Is the year 1999 and you’ve written a novel about crime and romance in the inner city that channels the dynamism of hip-hop and is aimed at black women who can’t find anything good in the local bookstore? Self-publish. (By 2009, of course, a number of major publishers have started their own urban fiction lines because self-publishing worked well enough to convince them to put the color green over the color black. Not such a good idea to self-publish urban fiction now.)
Are you a poet? Eh, you may as well self-publish.
But if you’re just writing the same stuff that’s already in stores, there’s no real reason to self-publish. There are a number of success stories even in these cases, of course, but “success story” is defined as not having to self-publish anymore, which just goes to show what a raw deal self-publishing is. Putting serial books online, creating podcasts and fun games, selling copies out of the trunk of one’s car, hitting every convention you can, etc etc etc. can and does work. It just
a. fails far more often than it works and,
b. given real expenses and sweat and labor, it is the rough equivalent of simply attaching a cashier’s check for $1000-3000 to one’s query letter. (An agent will read your letter if you do that too!)
PS: At the risk of being on-topic, I wonder if the average age of a debut writer was younger back when novels were shorter. (I’m thinking Delany at 19, Moorcock at 22, etc.)
Wow are you making me feel better. I thought I just didn’t have anything to say until 38. (which, um, is true).
Tim @6, perhaps because many people who are homeschooled make the offensive and poorly-reasoned generalization that homeschooling is always a superior form of education, and the only possible criticism of it stems from classism and/or stupidity? I’ve homeschooled my kids, and they all got (and continue to get) lessons in elementary logic and speaking to one’s audience. I hope your post-homeschooling experience will remedy these unfortunate deficiencies, as you do not seem to have acquired them from homeschooling.
On the age of writers, I wonder if it has anything to do with day jobs vs. Being A Writer as one’s full-time job?
I was 40 when I won the Campbell. That was before my first novel came out. But I started writing for serious at 26, started publishing (anything) at 37, right around 850,000 lifetime words written, and started publishing consistently around 1,000,000 lifetime words written.
So, erm, what you said.
“At the risk of being on-topic, I wonder if the average age of a debut writer was younger back when novels were shorter.”
It’s possible. Someone would have to actually do research on that, and I’m personally too lazy to do that. I will note that Heinlein’s first novel was published in 1947, when he was either 39 or 40, and Asimov’s first novel was published when he was 30; Arthur C. Clarke, 34. So they at least seem to be on the typical curve.
“On the age of writers, I wonder if it has anything to do with day jobs vs. Being A Writer as one’s full-time job?”
Anecdotally I’d say no, because my own experience as Being a Writer as my full-time job since college — while certainly helping me learn craft — really didn’t make my writing novel process go that much faster than anyone else’s.
There are many, many ways to decide if a particular POD (or any) book is worth your money and time, other than simply assuming based on the publisher.
* Search inside this book if you’re looking at Amazon, or open it up and have a look if you’re in a bookstore. Is the prose dreadful? Can you count the typos in double-digits without even trying hard? Did the first few paragraphs not hook you? Then don’t buy it.
* Read the reviews, with a discerning eye. Look for more detailed reviews. Reviews that give 3 or 4 stars instead of all 5. Reviews posted on review sites other than Amazon. Reviews written by people you’ve come to trust.
* Judge a book by its cover. If the cover art is absolutely horrendous, what makes you think the contents are any better? Sure, they _might_ be, but it’s caveat emptor at this point if you’ve bought a book with a horrible cover without compelling reason to think it’s good otherwise.
* Get recommendations from friends, booksellers, librarians.
Yes, agents and editors are gate keepers. But they’re not the only ones out there with the ability to judge quality. And in most cases, they don’t have any ability at all to judge what _you’ll_ like.
Even those badly-spelled, weirdly-formatted, ugly-covered, convolutedly-plotted books may be giving some reader, or many readers, something they can’t get elsewhere. Don’t say the books have no value just because they have no value to _you_.
Heck, there’s even some value to the writer in getting marketing practice. Marketing is integral to a writing career. And why shouldn’t they be out there promoting their work and saying how awesome it is? Better than the attitude ‘I know this isn’t very good, but I hope you’ll buy it anyway.’
And they _are_ authors. Why put it in quotes? Even the teenagers rocking away in their garage are musicians, not “musicians”.
People who can put out NaNoWriMo level output *and* have it be good, *and* do so consistently are incredibly rare. As are 21 year old people who can write a good novel. Yes, they exit, but the existence of the far end of the bell curve doesn’t disprove the thick middle part.
Are we really going to make this thread all about self-publishing? Because I suspect it’s going to play out like every single other comment thread about self-publishing that’s ever been written, and I find the prospect of that kind of boring.
John – true, but wasn’t non-novel writing therefore sort of your day job? I’m actually not sure which way this goes – whether having a day job helps or hurts. Deciding to Be A Writer can turn into a lot of puttering around the house and websurfing while writing half a page a day, then eventually giving up and getting a day job because you’re out of money, while having a day job means that writing is a welcome change. I dunno.
Wow, that totally bummed out my high man. I guess I’d better get started writing my second novel. The plot is all there, but the characters are just skeletons. Not real skeletons, although that would be cool, more like frameworks. You know what I mean.
I wrote my first novel when I was 29. It was bad. The premise was actually pretty cool and I should make another run at it. My second novel was better. I have written fifteen since.
A small press accepted a novel of mine and a month before it went to print, poof, the publisher went under.
I think part of the problem with novelists is also shared with musicians, and that’s the cycle of writing and submitting – rather like bands who finish an album and tour it before starting a new one.
I know lots of unpublished writers write, rewrite, but don’t let go whilst they’re going through the submission process – they wait for the final “no” before beginning the next novel. All of which makes the cycle much longer (hence my drosophila analogy). I think there’s a real lesson to be learned there – if it takes x number of books for an average author to reach their peak – and I’m with JJ – we’re not talking Black Swans – then this kind of cycle will inevitably mean breakthrough novelists are of a certain age.
Interestingly, there’s sports research that shows you need 10,000 hours to reach a “professional” standard. I wonder if there are similar stats on writing?
Marketing isn’t integral to a writing career; that’s what publishers do. Promotion by the author doesn’t hurt but don’t confuse marketing and promotion. They are not always the same.
Okay, going back to the 10,000 hours of practice. How many kids get put into music lessons at the age of 8 or 9 or even younger? And how many are then encouraged to practice?
Compare that to the number of kids who are put into fiction-writing lessons at the same age and encouraged to practice fiction-writing for 30 minutes to an hour a day.
Should it be any surprise that the musicians get to a higher level at a younger age?
My roommate–currently in her mid-twenties–just sold her first novel. She started writing and submitting to agents when she was 11. Chelsea was lucky enough to know exactly what she wanted, and knew she could get it.
I suspect that for lot of people, like myself, it just doesn’t occur to them that the dream of being a published author is actually something they can do until relatively late in life, and by that point, they’ve got a family and full time job and all other sorts of time-sinks to work around.
J. Andrews: Philip Pullman has said that there are no prodigies in fiction writing. Poets, yes — Arthur Rimbaud was very good very young. But I think writing really well requires an understanding of human beings that’s hard to come by when you’re still figuring out the intricacies of relationships.
My own trajectory is not dissimilar to John’s, though I started a bit younger:
18- started writing seriously
19 – wrote my first complete novel
19-24: wrote various unpublishable novels
25: finished a novel that was actually good, acquired an agent
26: sold the novel
It should be out in stores a little before my 27th birthday.
But then, I have an advantage: I’m writing Young Adult novels. So I just have to understand the intricacies of being a teenager! And also they are shorter.
That means that my debut novel will come out when I’m….. GOOD GOD!
I’m glad someone said this stuff. This fits right in with my continual rant about why the stories one continually hears about how such-and-such a famous author “only wrote novels because s/he needed money” are simply not credible.
Thank you for the excellent and insightful post. The link to Teresa Nielson Hayden’s post was much appreciated.
At the risk of crossing the pimp/brown nosing line, for more detailed information on what kinds of things go into making a successful writing career, I highly recommend YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE WHEN YOU TAKE YOUR LAPTOP TO A COFFEESHOP. The author’s name escapes me.
1967 – 1991: Time spent learning to write well enough to write a novel (26).
1991: Wrote first complete novel (26)
1992–1993: Wrote two more novels, one of which is possibly publishable with rewrite (28)
1993-1998: Wrote a bunch of short stories while trying to sell all three initial novels (31)
1999: Started selling shorts and returned to novels, writing the book that would ultimately sell first (32)
2000: Got agent who started marketing novel (33)
2000-2005: Wrote three more novels, all still looking for publishers (38)
2005: Contract signed for that debut novel (38)
2006: Debut novel published (39)
i’m 36 this august.
i wrote through my teens, poetry
and short stories. i stopped all through
my 20’s. i picked up writing again
in my early 30’s. silver phoenix (my
debut) is my first novel. it took about
5 – 6 months to rough draft (35k of
which done in nano 2006) then another
year to revise six times.
queried 121 agents in four months.
subbed to 9 publishers and got my
contract in about 5 weeks?
it was nearly as hard to find an agent
as it was an editor, in my case.
writing the first novel was a huge learning
curve. and i scared myself out of writing
for six months, when i had 40 pages under
my belt and the dreaded MIDDLE to slog through.
contracted sequel is like learning all over again.
have never been more thrilled or terrified
in my entire life. or stressed or obsessive.
wouldn’t tradeit for anything! =)
Here’s an interesting stat I found in the professional psychology literature: not only does it take a long time to get a novel published (on average, a published novelist is older than other kinds of artists), but there is also a second long time period between published novelists’ first publications and their “great works.” The researchers found that when you look at major novelists, there was, on average, a ten year period of working and publishing between their first published novel and the novels that lasted, that made them famous (if not necessarily rich).
While I love your post, it is interesting how the main reason for novelists being older doesn’t get a mention: people have more to write about as they get older. Sure there are exceptions, young writers, six year olds who can do a novel and get it published. And I wouldn’t put that down — occasionally, really great novels do get written by very young writers. But as an old guy with four or five practice novels under my belt and now, finally, with a really great agent selling my first sellable one, my sense is that the cold, hard realities of human psychological development count for a lot in the novel business.
Life experience is better represented in novels than in probably any other art form because novels, like life, can be complex and multi-layered. The problems in life can be incredibly daunting, crushing, mind-twisting. The twenties you think you are understanding as you live through them aren’t real — when you’re forty, you’ll realize how confused you were; when you’re sixty, you’ll realize how wrong you were in your forties. Sorry, but that’s how it is for everybody.
It takes a novel to lay out such complexity, and it takes a person who has been through them to be able to write it “true.” (Though there is no one under 40 who will believe a word of this blathering.)
Depends on what we mean by a “novel,” too, of course. Possibly, the word should be retired.
I have a different experience on this than some. I find I just can’t write dialog that sounds reasonable. I don’t know why, since I can talk to people individually or in a group without a problem. But until I can write dialog that doesn’t sound like overmedicated twits trying to overcome their fear of others, no writing will be sent to anyone.
I do have some ideas that I think are interesting, and apparently others do to. Two of the ideas in my “write this up someday” file have been turned into good books by others, and one has been turned into a pretty good movie. If I was paranoid, I would put on my aluminum foil hat to stop people from telepathically stealing my ideas. But since I am rather rational, even without meds, I will just be happy that others have the same ideas, and can do something with them. Since I can’t write them myself, it is at least nice to be able to read someone else’s treatments.
I think it takes a long time to discover what people are really like, what stories are for and how to structure them, as well as how to actually maintain a reader’s interest over thousands of words.
When I think of novelists I think of those big turtles that live a long time. And when I think of rock stars, with a few exceptions, in all honesty they are like fruit flies. They’re born and they die, hopefully having put out a few good albums in between. Fiction authors have a different half-life, it seems to me.
I remember hearing at a mystery writer’s conference that debut mystery authors were about ten years older than the average for all novelists. The consensus was that a large number of mystery novelists became writers after a previous career.
“it is interesting how the main reason for novelists being older doesn’t get a mention: people have more to write about as they get older.”
I don’t mention it because I don’t know that it’s particularly relevant to writing a publishable novel, particularly in genre categories, which have formulas to aid the competent (if not genius) writer. Note that “publishable” is not the same as “good” or “compelling” or “brilliant,” and that in a general sense I heartily agree that having lots of experiences under your belt often makes you a better writer, regardless of which genre your work is slotted into. That said, all other talents being equal, the 20something writer is not necessarily at a disadvantage to the 30something writer, simply because the latter has been around longer.
“Okay, going back to the 10,000 hours of practice. How many kids get put into music lessons at the age of 8 or 9 or even younger? And how many are then encouraged to practice?”
And the same with Drama – I remember participating in drama/plays when I was in elementary school, and surely if I’d felt more of a bug for acting I could have been working on that from then to today.
I’m currently 24 and I’ve been trying to get my third novel published since October (http://seconddeath.wordpress.com) with little to no luck. I’m already two-thirds of the way through my fourth novel, an urban fantasy I plan to turn into a trilogy entitled “The Seducer’s Handbook”. When Scalzi speaks of trying to get published in this day and age, 30 years old is actually quite young, but I should count my blessings.
I have a degree in English and a postgraduate diploma in book and magazine publishing, so I know the ins and outs of the publishing industry. I have a blog (www.scifiwatch.net) which is garnering me more than 10,000 hits each month. I regularly attend science fiction conventions and sent out new query letters every month to literary agents and editors. Oh, and having a first job as an assistant editor to two magazines doesn’t hurt either.
At this point, it’s not a matter of if but when.
Thanks for the fantastic post Scalzi!
I wrote my first novel when I was 15. It sucked. So did the second one I wrote when I was 16, and the third one I wrote when I was 18. The fourth, fifth, and sixth ones I wrote when I was 19-21 were readable but not publishable.
Then real life intervened, and I didn’t do any writing for ten years.
The seventh novel I wrote when I was 36 was readable and may be publishable someday, with some revisions.
The eighth novel was written this Spring, and yesterday I got a request to see the full manuscript from a pretty well-known agent. So maybe, at the age of 41 (42 next month), I’ll finally get to the point that I’ve wanted to be at as long as I can remember: becoming a published novelist.
I was feeling wretched about how old I was before finally getting this far, until I read this post. The ten wasted years really, really hurt.
But after reading this, I don’t feel so bad. 42 isn’t that old, and hopefully I’ve got at least another 20 years left in me.
too long to read all of it
won’t step 4 and 5 change with current technology
as gatekeepers lose their exclusive access to market?
John – I’m surprised no one has mentioned National Novel Writing Month yet (NaNoWriMo – website at http://www.nanowrimo.org/ ). The idea is to write a 50k novel in a month – during November. I’ve managed to do the 50k the last 3 years. All three attempts have been dreck – but it’s my dreck and I know I can ‘write the distance’, so to speak. If any of your readers want to give it a try, they will get all kinds of support on the website as we will all be in the same boat. It costs nothing to register and I do recommend reading Chris Baty’s book prior to doing it. (For one thing it’s pretty humerous. Also – I have no monetary interest in the site or book. I’m just a regular user there).
I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo, but my major problem with it is that 50K words is not publishable novel length; these days a minimum publishable length for a novel is 60K.
1981 – 2006 (age 25): Learning to write well enough to put together a novel. This was a very informal process on my part; I didn’t have any ambitions to become an author, but sort of piddled along writing supplemental RPG materials while doing the whole college/law school/beginning practice Real Job thing.
2007 (age 26): Tried a couple of short stories to see if I could do it, sold a couple, figured “well that’s good enough.” (Short stories, needless to say, are not my forte.)
2008 (age 27): Wrote first novel. Got an agent.
2009 (early in the year so still age 27): Sold first novel.
If all goes according to schedule, that novel should be on the shelves in early 2010, at which time I will be 28.
So yeah, pretty much on schedule. It’s interesting to see how predictable the pattern really is.
Thanks for sharing – Wrote first novel at 21. Wrote second novel at 30.
Revised, shredded, and edited first novel at 35.
Pubbed revised novel at 38 with small press.
I learned more in the editing process with a “real” publisher — see 6 months of writing boot camp — and am now cranking through my next novel hoping for a clean-ish first draft, & to try the agent game again.
Hit 40k words and ran into a snag. Pulling my way out of it – and might still have something interesting to say.
Thanks for your post. I no longer feel “old” as a new author.
As a repeat NaNo participant, I think some participants forget that the point of NaNo isn’t to write a publishable novel – it’s an extended exercise in getting past all the mental blocks that keep one from writing. It falls into that first “working up to it” category.* If it’s true that one has to write a million words of crap before they get to anything good, NaNo’s a good start on the way!
*And yes, I know that some people publish NaNo novels. However I would bet good money that the fast majority of those have gone through significant edits and rewriting.
It might not be publishable length but it is worth doing just to show yourself that you can do it. And there is nothing to stop you from going beyond the 50k. Every year I see quite a few people that break 80-100k. (I haven’t been that lucky yet – I think the best I’ve done is around 55k).
For those unfamiliar with it, the idea is to have a first draft at the end, not an editted novel ready for submission to a publisher.
Great, great post! Thanks for setting the record straight. And besides the literal years it takes to see a book evolve and finally get published, to be a good writer you must be a keen observer of life. Young age doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t keenly observant, but years of life experience sure does help! And those years that we think sideline us from our writing are actually essential detours that help us become better writers.
That being said, I only wish I WAS in my 30’s still! Geez, I guess that makes me an OLD, old new writer!
Another point that occurs to me is that often you don’t really hear about authors until they have a few books on the shelves and a vocal fan base, which means that they have to go through the entire process several times before building a large enough presence that casual readers take note. So the whole thing gets multiplied by however many books it takes to get some name recognition.
A “new” novelist might have three books out before anybody hears of him. That probably explains a vaguely remembered quote to the effect that “writing is the only art where a ‘prodigy’ can be anyone under 40.”
I love the idea that being in your 30s is old! I once had a completely serious conversation with a young man desperate to write his breakout novel before he turned 25 and his talent dried up. I thought he was hilarious then, but when I turned 35 and Odd De Presno, the creator of Kidlink, said, “Ah, 35, a dangerous age,” I thought he was insane. Wasn’t I almost ready for a wheelchair?
It took Katherine Anne Porter 29 years to write Ship of Fools.
Life is long.
Actually, I mentioned NaNoWriMo.
I missed that, Josh – I stand corrected.
The novel I’m attempting to revise into publishable form is two NaNo attempts fused together. It took me two months to draft (two months in two separate years, though) and has taken me another two years to revise into a shape I’m willing to tentatively show to people. I’m already pondering ideas for another (rather different) one, and hope to be able to at least draft it out come November.
I’m encouraged by the notion that it’s not too late for me to ascend to the ranks of the published. I suspect the other reason that so many debut musicians are in their twenties is because musicians who didn’t start early enough are deemed ‘too old’ to be picked up by major labels by the time they master their craft.
I now see the error of my ways. I shouldn’t have written that first novel. I should have gone directly to writing my second or third novel first. Then, success!
The current process is NOT helped by the fact that many big publishing houses are now reluctant to take a flyer on new talent. A number of them require an Act of Deity to pull your submission out of the slush pile, and it’s not much better if you have an agent. Economically, many of them would rather publish a new Stephen King or Patricia Cornwell, because they already have name recognition and are likely going to sell even if the writer (at this time) is mainly writing because of a contractual obligation, not because they have a story burning to be told.
I’ve recently seen a lot of the publishers either cut way down on new material, or even amputate some of their smaller branches (for example, World Book Almanac no longer exists. Wow.) Until people start buying more books again, the bar to getting newly published is higher than ever before. The one thing established publishers did admirably is publicize their authors. Self publishing, unless you hit the big time on a popular blog, is a hard slog.
You scare me! I just turned 77 and I’ve finished my second (unpublished) novel. Published my first through iUniverse, and now I’m having my second one edited by a pro. If your timetable is accurate than maybe by the time I turn 90 (give or take) I may be lucky enough to have it published. I can hardly wait!
“it is interesting how the main reason for novelists being older doesn’t get a mention: people have more to write about as they get older.”
Oh, I wouldn’t know about that — I’m a huge fan of P.D. James, but you’d really have to squint hard to put her latest, ‘The Private Patient’, which she published at 88, among her best work. (OTOH, I’d say the same about her first three novels, that were written and published in her early forties — highly competent, but not exceptional.)
There’s also an argument that a good proportion of mystery writers are women, and they quite often have had to “fit in” writing around day jobs and raising children to an extent men don’t. To use James as an example again, she entered the civil service because her husband was seriously ill and her two young daughters weren’t going to feed and house themselves. For a good chunk of her career, she was writing (sometimes literally) at the kitchen table before before going to work and during weekends.
As for using your “life experience”, one of my favourite mystery authors is an Australian woman called Kerry Greenwood — her main series is the Phryne Fisher Mysteries, which are set in 20’s Melbourne. She has worked as what I guess Americans would call a public defender, and she’s quite emphatic that’s totally off limits as material for her books. Not only because it’s ethically and legally dodgy, but because she thinks it is a pretty shitty way to treat people who are (almost by definition) not affluent or articulate enough to take exception if they felt ill-used. She prefers the old formula of a lot of research and even more imagination. :)
1991: Started writing scripts
1998: Wrote my first novel
1999: Wrote more scripts
2001-3: Wrote second novel, along with other scripts
2005: Made a film, gave up scripts forever, wrote third novel
2007, Labor Day weekend: Started querying third novel.
2007, December: Signed with an agent, started revisions.
2008, February: Accepted an offer from Del Rey
2009, September: Book will be released.
I should note that the December to February turn around is much faster than usual–my agent was going on maternity leave and could ask editors to bump my book up the queu. There was also a lot of interest in it, and that speeds things, too.
Dr Phil: Absolute genius!
Just wanted to say thanks! Stumbled across this today while surfing during a conference call to end. I’m 36 and revising my second novel–the first one was, as you suggest, crap. This one is marginally better. I was just talking to my fiancee about how hard it is to find time to write, how life gets in the way, how it’s taken me three years to write and polish this novel.
Then I read your marvelous timeline and felt much better. So many writer’s blogs out there don’t talk about what it’s like to be working a full-time job (in my case one that expects 9-10 hrs/day out of me) and trying to write. It’s like the writers block out the fact that they ever tried to juggle two jobs (writing and the other one). I appreciate your recognition that many of us go through this (along with the hope that, like you, we can come out the other side).
Great post! Two writers who were notoriously fast writers were Micky Spillane and L. Ron Hubbard. They’re not my favorite writers, by the way, just thought I’d mention them because I’ve read about how much they could produce in a day. I’m not totally sure about this, but I think Micky Spillane wrote one of his first novels in two or three weeks. Truly amazing.
On the subject of age, I think Henryk Sienkiewicz was over fifty when he became a powerhouse of a writer. He may well be one of the greatest writers of modern times, if not the greatest (yeah, I know he’s been dead for almost a hundred years). I believe part of the experience of becoming a good writer comes from reading other writers who are very good. The reason I mentioned Sienkiewicz is his capacity for crafting dialog as well as “painting” the environs in which his characters are portrayed are unsurpassed in their excellence.
You may have noticed that I listed three writers who wrote in very different genres. Are writers like yourself, who have proven they have what it takes to be successful, interested in genres other than what you write in or do you spend most of your allotted reading time on sci-fi? Hope that’s not too personal a question.
In regard to parts four and five of the post, I wonder whether there are business practices that make this process longer than necessary.
I’ve only really seen the publishing business from the other end, but reading here and at Making Light and elsewhere, I suspect so. The biggest — no simultaneous submissions — seems designed entirely for a publishing house’s convenience. I say that because in cases where writers and/or agents have the power to do so, they will have an auction, and publishers will prove perfectly capable of evaluating a manuscript or proposal that competitors are also seeing. Not only that, they prove perfectly capable of evaluating that manuscript in a matter of days, or, at most, weeks. So the practice of taking up to a year to reply to queries also looks suspect.
I’ll also note that when the market demands it, all of the physical production can be done quite quickly. Not every book is going to be an insta-book, but the fact that it can be done more quickly suggests that the leisurely pace the trade press sets for itself not the only way to do business.
Maybe some of these practices ought to change?
And there’s George Simenon — whose Maigret books alone came up to 75 novels and 28 short stories — who boasted that he could write a novel in a week.
It’s been fascinating to see authors’ timelines here. I haven’t ever made a serious commitment to writing, but it’s fun to compare my numbers to those of successful authors.
Let’s see…I’ve got seven 50k NaNoWriMo “novels” behind me – only 13 more to go before I hit that magic One Million Words mark and can finally write something fit to be published!
Thanks for this post, Mr. Scalzi: I’ve just recently committed to writing my first novel, having let it gestate for years and written short stories in the past, and your post has sort of affirmed a lot of my hopes and concerns. When I’m rich and famous I’ll remember you. ^_-
That’s one I haven’t read, but becasue you mentioned it I looked him up. 200+ novels! ouch!
Good post. Most particularly, thank you for the great potter’s-wheel analogy–that’s a really useful way of thinking about it.
I don’t think anyone would expect that a first-time potter or painter or sculptor would create a masterpiece the first time out, but somehow a lot of people still expect that the one novel they want to write, without writing anything else first, will be a masterpiece.
I wonder if this has something to do with a general perception that pottery and painting and sculpture are *art*, while writing is something anyone can do. But at this point I’m speculating through my hat, so I’ll stop.
But at this point I’m speculating through my hat….
An exercise made much easier when wearing a hat like the one John is modeling.
Pleasantly surprised to find that post uplifting and not (as I suspected it would be from the title) depressing.
I don’t (necessarily suck!) Yay!
Need to work on my copyediting tho…
I don’t (necessarily) suck! Yay!
wrote eight novels before I sold the first. The one coming out next year is a rewrite of one of those. (Was salvageable.) In the middle there spent about three years doing short stories. Used to hit a hundred rejections by March. (Not that I wrote a hundred stories by March — or over the three years — but one of those took me eight years to sell.)
Elmore Leonard quotes John D. McDonald’s notion that you have to write a million words before you know what you’re doing:
Regarding the person who suggested judging a book by its cover, I’m an author, with my first solo book coming out in November, and a lot of my friends are, and almost every one has a nightmare story about how and why their cover turned out so terribly. In the cover process, many publishers these days treat authors as an annoyance, and designers often don’t read the book before doing the cover.
So, did Dick Morris write “Catastrophe” during the primaries?
R.J. I’m not a fan of spell check or grammar check, but you might try both. It couldn’t hurt. Aside from that, a lot of self published authors become successful. A friend of mine has done a lot of editng work as a result of his plays, short stories and novels. It’s a hobby as he’s a banker, but he really enjoys it and the business loves him. So folks, even if you don’t end up writing the great American Novel, you can succeed. Remember, Fitzgerald wrote Benjamin Button and that actually got made into a movie. Go figure.
Amy- I didn’t see your post before I pontificated, but you’re on the money with the cover art. The first thing I saw for a friend(and successful published author) looked like the editor’s kid had done it. In decoupage. And had the nerve to be insulted when it was suggested that perhaps we should try again. Stand your ground and get the best cover you can. Of course you have the advantage that all you need is a glam shot.
For years I used to say I would write a novel except for my difficulties with three things: plot, characters, and dialogue. Then, age 65, I picked up one of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume “Dance to the Music of Time,” which I much enjoyed. For some reason I felt sure I could write like that, and for the first time devoted serious energy to doing so. It’s coming along slowly, but first draft is almost done, and I’ve realized that besides those 3 first things, one needs consistency of voice, continuity, description, just the right degree of poesy, some humor and irony, and much more. I’m 66 now, and plan to keep working on the thing. I have no (or only occasional) illusions about its being published. But I do want to feel I have written it.
Speaking of your newness or lack there of, you are mentioned in the article “War Stories” by Marc Donner in the May/June IEEE Security and Privacy magazine. I haven’t read the whole article yet but early on it says
The article is available online but not for free, IEEE members and library subscribers can read it here
I guess even if new authors were expected to hit it big in their 20s it’d be fair to call you a newcomer next to Heinlein :)
There is another way to land on an editor’s desk without an agent and bypassing the slush pile. I did it by finaling in the Romance Writers’ of America Golden Heart contest. Once I finaled, I sent out my query letter with that news as the first sentence and got editors’ responses, one of whom eventually bought my manuscript. There are other RWA chapter contests that will put your entry in front of an editor, if you final–of course, it helps to be writing romance. :)
“you are mentioned in the article ‘War Stories’ by Marc Donner in the May/June IEEE Security and Privacy magazine”
Yes, I’ve read it. Mr. Donner flatters me.
At age 54 I guess I will spend the time I have left reading rather than writing.
Thanks, Scalzi: Now I really feel old. I didn’t get that first novel publication until age 41. Fourth one is due out in August…
And on reflection, not only did my first completed novel suck, (the first one I wrote, along with the next eight–none of which have or will see the light of day we should all hope), but I’m pretty sure the first one published was… umm… shall we say a bit raw?
I think I’m getting better at this–I certainly hope so. I think this is true for most commercial fiction writers: you start out publishable but not really good and you get better as you keep on running this race. It’s not magic, it’s the process of being processed–you learn by doing and you do it in the fire, because that’s the nature of this business. Ah, what fun!
Thanks for the lucid explanation for why we’re all so damned old.
I was once convinced that I would have to get published before I graduated from high school, or it’d prove I wasn’t really a child prodigy like I thought I was.
Possibly I wasn’t much of a child prodigy, but reading in high school a book that mentioned in its author bio that it had been written when he was in junior high cured me of a lot of that competitive streak. Now I’m in my late twenties and still plugging away at writing my first publishable novel. (I figure the unpublishable stuff I’ve written doesn’t count.) It’s reassuring to know that in this I’m downright average, and not, as I still sometimes guiltily feel, wasting time by not getting the shiny gold star sooner.
As has been said above, people in their 30s also have had many more experiences than those in their 20s, and thus have much more to write *about*. My own writing has gotten better for that simple fact, let alone the improvement in craft over that decade.
Mr. Scalzi thanks for this post.
More Old-New novelists:
Steve Erickson was 35 when Days Between Stations was published. He wrote 5 novels before Days Between Stations was published.
Lucius Shepard’s first novel, Green Eyes, was published when he was 37.
William S. Burroughs was 39 when Junky was first published.
James M. Cain was 42 when The Postman Always Rings Twice was published.
L. Frank Baum was 44 when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.
Raymond Chandler was 51 when The Big Sleep was published.
And Charles Bukowski was 51 when his first novel, Post Office, was published.
Any others come to mind?
I highly recommend YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE WHEN YOU TAKE YOUR LAPTOP TO A COFFEESHOP. The author’s name escapes me.
Can’t think of it either – some dork from the Midwest. His wife is hot, though.
The other point of NaNoWriMo is the community. Writing is pretty solitary by its nature (and because your loved ones can only stand so much of “What do you think of this chapter….what? What do you mean you don’t get the symbolism?!”); NaNoWriMo means a bunch of people are doing the same thing you are and talking about it, and you have a very handy pool of people to answer questions about what obstetrical forceps were used in 1930, or what happens if you jump into an in-ground pool full of Jello-O.
FWIW, George Eliot didn’t publish any fiction until she was 39… her reputation hardly seems to have been dampened by her age.
(Of course she had already been publishing nonfiction, journalistic, and academic writing for a long time…)
The start-to-finish publishing process is utterly appalling. John’s primer should be required reading in K-12, to discourage all those who think that they, the anointed, shall write a novel. In their spare time. Eventually.
Well, I wrote a novel and it’s damn good. Unfortunately, Publishers Weekly didn’t quite agree. In fact, they said it was a cross between situation comedy and endless banter. Something suited for television. Well, where’s the money, geniuses!
But here’s my real problem: I’m 67, and if I keep at it – based on John’s empirical formula – my “debut” novel will be released in 2019. If I’m lucky. Meanwhile, all the people I want to impress will be dead, that is, after factoring in means-testing. Worse, the English teacher who declared loudly that I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag – well, she kicked the bucket 20 years ago. Hey, at least “I” got published, Miss Emily Perfect! Take THAT to heaven! Or wherever it is you now reside, you pulsating minx.
Still, the nice thing about being 67 is that you know stuff. For instance, if you continue scrambling your eggs while they’re cooking, they’ll taste better. Also, the sound barrier for a car is 100mph. Also, the surest way to get a date with a beautiful woman is to ASK HER.
Or, get your novel published – at which time I’ll follow up with the geriatric formula.
Fade Manleyon: reading in high school a book that mentioned in its author bio that it had been written when he was in junior high…
That wasn’t Gordon Korman by any chance, was it? ‘Cause he’s the only one I know of. Correction–him and the author of “in the forests of the night.” Korman’s books are pretty awesome, particularly “Losing Joe’s Place.”
Too many excellent writers make it look easy. One of my all time favorites, P.G. Wodehouse, had a rigorous daily schedule of constant rewriting and polishing. Read a Jeeves and Wooster story and the first thing that strikes you is the breathless stream of consciousness nonsense that somehow hangs together and makes sense. Looks easy – unless you try it yourself.
Consider this: Bertie Wooster is by all accounts, even his own, a blithering idiot. So how is it he can relate such complex stories, filled with telling detail, without any of it penetrating his essential idiocy? That is brilliance, and it isn’t the result of carelessly slapping words onto the page.
Another thing about Wodehouse – read any bio of him and you’ll be struck by the amount of time he spent in communication with his various agents and representatives, marketing and crafting stories and novels. He spent nearly as much time managing the business of writing as he did writing.
Coming in late here to add that writing is one of the few endeavors where age is an advantage. A 30-year-old has the advantage over the 20-year-old. A 60-year-old has an advantage over the 30-year-old. The only real threat to your success is senility, serious illness, or death as you get old. Unlike gymnasts, writers get better the more experience they have, and the competition is pretty stiff, so it’s not surprising that brand new young adults of age 20-something usually don’t rocket to the top.
I know that age and maturity are somewhat orthogonal, but I think that maturity is an important part of writing a good novel, whether first or otherwise. Very few writers are good enough craftspeople or have clever enough ideas to get over being immature. (I’d mention the authors I have in mind, but I think our host would not appreciate a flame war.) There are a number of things that an author seems to get after taking a level or two in personal maturity, particularly an appreciation for shades of gray. One of the things that strikes me about John’s books is that he seems to have a fundamental respect for all his characters, whether heroes, villains, or comic relief. That’s something that he has in common with another of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, and it’s something that I don’t see much in the work of younger/immature writers, including going back and reading a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school and college.
Obviously there’s a lot more too it than that, since as others have noted, it takes time to master the craft of writing, and to get a few attempts under one’s belt. But it does also seem that most people only stop seeing the world in black and white when they’re around thirty.
Steve at 113: Glad to see the Wodehousians coming out. P.G. started publishing his first serialized novel at 21, continued writing short pieces and serialized pieces for newspapers and magazines for the rest of his life, until age 93. These were in addition to the writing he did in columns, novels, screenplays, scripts and lyrics for Broadway shows.
Funniest story of the bunch: Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo. I’m just sayin’.
As devoted a fan as I am, I think that his early work is valuable only as an indication of how his art developed. Though I’m loath to say that anything he wrote could be called sucky, the rule about first novels applies to P.G. as well.
I don’t think that age is automatically an advantage. Experience helps, as does maturity. But we’ve all seen the phenomenon of writers who, as they age, mentally fossilize or go all manky on us. Dave Sim is the obvious example, but I’m also thinking of an RPG writer who I’ve respected for many many years and who, in his late middle age, has suddenly gotten all amateur-evo-psych and won’t stop blathering.
JS – Your series have come out in a timely manner. Do you talk to David Gerrold? How about giving him some tips about “timely manner”. Over 10 years later, I’m still waiting for the continuation on his Chtorr series!
A well-intentioned friend sent me the link to this piece yesterday. Also yesterday, another friend and I were discussing age (specifically, ours, advancing). The first friend suggested I read the article since he knows I’m about to appear in book-print for the first time. The second friend suggested something much more off-colour (more on this follows).
Unexpectedly, there was a convergence between the two topics: preoccupation with age/ age as a measure of accomplishment.
With respect to the age at which one achieves fame, a published novel, or whatever you want to set as your “thing”…why are we preoccupied with age this way? Sure, it’s a notch on your belt to declare, “I had my first best-seller published when I was so young I was still kind of a self-absorbed dink!” But, if you keep on keepin’ on, and one day you are in print, what does it matter how old you are?
Then, since the second friend and I are pretty baby-faced, neither of us looks 36…and yet, we are preoccupied with the fact that we are now closer to 40 than 30…closer to 50 than 20…and so on. No longer bright young things. My friend suggested that henceforth, we will measure our age not in years, but in the number of babies in whose blood we have bathed in order to remain youthful, à la vampires or other tricky creatures. He figured bathing thusly once per month should keep us youthful and spry well into our 80s.
Ok, ok, we are TOTALLY kidding about the babies, geez…but, you catch my drift. I no longer write with the clock ticking, and I no longer worry that at 36, I nearly look 25, haha.
Kick-ass post. and oh-so-true. Had my first novel published last year, at age 46. Novel #2 is kicking my ass. Ignorance is bliss.
Just wanted to say AMEN and great post. I also wanted to add, in light of the statement about other creative types (musicians and actors, specifically) being younger at average debut age, that visual artists have the same sort of age-delay as writers. A young, up-and-coming fine artist is usually in their 30s. (Guess which two career paths I decided to choose? Does that mean it’ll take me twice as long?? Good lord.)
Now I’m a couple years into my 30s and may be about to complete Step 4, if all goes well. Seems like I’m more or less on track. :D
I always get grouchy when people bring up Paolini because a novel written by a 15 year old would be much more impressive if it didn’t read like it was written by a 15 year old.
Matt Ruff’s debut novel (at 23) is a little breathless, but still good. Jonathan Safran Foer (debut at 25) is either a genius or a massively overrated gimmick writer or, perhaps, both.
Greg, it was very much Gordon Korman. His Macdonald Hall books were a highlight of my junior high and high school years, and I loved some of his teen books–Son of Interflux springs readily to mind–just to pieces. I really need to go find a way to pick up my own copies of those one of these days, now that I’m a boring adult with money to spend on such things.
37, working on what might be my debut.
It’s also my first. Which is why it’s already been through three top-to-bottom edits, and will be through at least two more before I even *think* of showing to an agent.
Can’t imagine going the slush route nowadays. I’m sure it works for somebody out there, but it seems to me like a recipe for fail.
That’s one I haven’t read, but becasue you mentioned it I looked him up. 200+ novels! ouch!
Ouch, indeed. And here’s the real brain-frak: The quality-to-crap ratio in Simenon (or at least, the proportion of his work that got translated into English that I’ve read) is disturbingly high. Froggy bastard. :)
Another case study is the English ‘mainstream’ novelist Anita Brooker, who published her first novel — ‘A Start in Life’ (US title: ‘The Debut’) — at the age of 53, in 1981. Not sure she’d qualify as a first time author though, because she’d published quite a lot in her day job as an academic art historian.
Looks like Rex Stout started writing in his 20’s, selling fiction to the pulps. The first Nero Wolfe came out in 1934, when he was in his 40’s, and the last came out in 1975, the year of his death.
Writing fiction is largely a right-brain activity. Trying to rationalize it (left brain) is a waste of time.
An exceptionally interesting writer has to be an exceptionally interesting person, the same goes for painters or filmmakers…
I’d say it’s less to do with AGE, more to do with EXPERIENCE.
Those stats on the ages of the John W. Campbell award winners are really encouraging. I don’t feel like I’m as behind anymore.
It´s a kind of relief to know that another writers – another good writes – didn´t get an easy path to publisher their novels, specially the first ones.
So I could say, the only thing we would-be novelist can do is keep writing, novel after novel. We must improve our writing skills and with luck to get published.
thanks for your words, man!
James Michener @127: politely, you’re talking bollocks. Writing a novel feels a lot like writing a large hunk of self-contained software. I speak from experience (of doing both).
Oh, and that left-brain/right-brain rational/creative split thing? So not how neurobiology actually works.
@Amanda: from the standpoint of getting published, I’ll take the word of the folks who’ve actually been published doing fiction. While I know for a fact that experience has helped me publish scholarly articles…. that’s a different kettle of fish.
I will say, though, that while I think my first novel *doesn’t* suck, the OP’s pattern probably holds — one reason I’m 37 working on draft #3 is that I, and the lovely people who understand the difference between “tell me what you think” and “tell me that you like it” were both absolutely certain that the poetry and prose I cranked out in my teens and twenties wasn’t even worth continuing on an informal basis.
The plural of “anecdote” isn’t “evidence,” but it seems to be a very real pattern.
My first novel sold.
My second novel sold.
All of my short stories have sold.
In fact, there’s nothing I’ve written that hasn’t been contracted for, with the exception of the pieces currently under consideration. With the exception of my first novel, everything was the first draft. The first novel was the second draft because the computer I finished it on crashed and took the book with it. The second version was much better.
I expect to be a New Novelist in my early 60s. Notwithstanding starting as a paid author at age 12 or 13. Notwithstanding my 3,000+ publications, presentations, and broadcasts to date.
The Novel Monetization mechanism is foundationally broken, and can’t, IMHO, be incrementally repaired.
When my 1st novel is published, the floodgates open and my next half dozen are from unsold inventory.
Just a little bootstrapping to be done.
Damn, I’m going to be in my forties by the time I get published. Phase of denial is starting now.
People don’t really get past the self-obsession of youth until age 29, which you need to do to write anything other than masturbation.
Wait… you can get PAID for this?
*drops scholarly writing, goes back to editing chapter 7*
I’m old at 30?
*snorting laugh* Good grief!
So my story is, I think, kind of unusual.
I’m almost 29.
1990: Began writing seriously (age 10)
1991-1993: Wrote “novels,” which I assume were more than likely novella-length (age 11-13)
1994-2004: Sort of got out of the whole writing stories business and devoted my time to theatre. (age 14-24 *sigh*)
1997: Finished my first play (17)
1999: Won a young playwrights competition and had it read off-broadway (19)
2000: Won another young playwrights competition and had a performance in California (19) as well as some other productions that summer (19-20)
2000-2004: Ruh-roh! Suddenly I’m not a kid anymore, and therefore my plays are not sexy. Nothing of significance happens. I give up playwriting at 24, feeling I’ve wasted my time.
2004: Turn to writing short stories and poetry. Begin selling them almost immediately (24)
2005: Write debut novella. Sell it the same year. (24-25)
2006: Small press released debut novella (25)
2007-present: Publish a number of poetry collections (26-28). Have short story collection in the works, as well as other novels under contract with small presses. Have a bunch of semi-complete novels awaiting completion, which I began at 22 and now know how to finish.
2008: Get nominated for Stoker Award for poetry. (28)
Now, if you got through all that, here’s my question: When we talk of debut novel, are we talking about a debut novel from a big (usually big city-based) publisher, or are we including micro/small/mid-sized publishers as well? I may have missed something (lots of comments to parse!), and I apologize if I have for not reading more thoroughly, but it seems like the discussion is all about big NYC presses or self-publishing through, I don’t know, AuthorHouse or something. There’s a lot of great stuff in between, and a lot of writers. Some of whom are my age and younger.
I am 72. Spinsters Ink published my debut novel this year. I had a dynamite editor and have gotten good reviews. What a great way to spend my old age. The sequel is about three quarters written. I started writing “The Venus Vendetta” in 1999 and suffered the required number of rejections and the tedious 18-months between finally signing the contract and seeing the book out in the world. Luckily my editor kicked my bellyaching butt and told me to get back to writing. I’m grateful to my fellow author Karin Kallmaker for turning me on to this blog. Thanks, rosie
Well, I found your post to be really encouraging and sensible! A nice dose of pragmatism in a world of black swans being viewed the ‘norm’.
I think its really disheartening though to see that alot of people my age (22) and younger haven’t come to the realisation that their first/second/third etc. attempts at writing a novel won’t end in published success, this idea being mainly due IMO to recent YA book success stories (e.g. twilight).
I guess like a fine wine, writers mature with age (i.e. IMO age refers to practice rather than physical age). Although i do agree with what previous commentors have said about age/practice being essential to being skilled at any craft, i found myself getting a little nervous at the whole ‘life experience’ thing. I understand the reasoning but i don’t think age necessarily equals life experience or equals a certain understanding of the inner workings of the human mind. I think “life experience” is equal to “life experience”. You can gain it in a year of hardship or over a lifetime.
Great post, which I found via Twitter. Every would-be novelist should be required to stick it on the wall over their laptop. Incidentally, and to give hope to some of your correspondents, I was over 60 when my “debut” novel was published. When the sixth is published early next year I will still be only 64. And yes, I’m female and a crime writer. And British. (Did you like the “only 64”?)
Very good points.
I didn’t sell my first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, until I was 33. It came out two years after I sold it.
But there’s another aspect, perhaps someone has hit it above: The perspective that living through your 20s gives you. You actually have some life to write about. My stuff starts with character, and I thing by basically screwing up in nearly every way I can think of in my 20s, I actually had the humility to take to the page to write good characters.
I’m not sure I was a lot more talented when I was 32 than when I was 22, but I had discipline, which is what it takes to finish a novel. Believe me, I tried every other way to get one written — from the “start it late Sunday night and hope to finish it by Monday” to the usual, two or three chapters abandoned or rewritten to death. Finally I did what people had been telling me to do for years. I wrote every day. I just didn’t believe there wasn’t a way around that when I was in my 20s, and I kept trying to find it.
I suspect I might have been kind of stupid, despite how friggin brilliant I thought I was at the time.
Great post and discussion. It’s heartwarming to see that there is less ageism at work when it comes to writing. Actually, a lot of people in my writing group are around my age (44) or older.
I definitely second the importance of having had life experience. In my case I also had to learn a new language ;) Feel blessed that you’re writing for the biggest market out there (i.e. English language)!
On the other hand, Asimov wrote “Nightfall” when he was 21. Chip Delany had won two Nebulas by the age of 23. Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” appeared when he was 27. Poul Anderson’s “Tomorrow’s Children” was in ASTOUNDING when he was 21. Sturgeon was up and running about the same age. I got a pretty fast start myself — Hugo for Most Promising New Author when I was 21. There are other even more extreme examples — Bruce McCallister, Ron Goulart, and a few others were hitting F&SF in their teens.
On the third hand, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and James Tiptree got fairly late starts. Heinlein was 32 when his first story appeared. They all did some considerable work once they broke in. Some get going more quickly than others. But I do get the impression that it takes a longer time to establish a career, in today’s overcrowded and fiercely competitive market, than it did for us two or three generations ago.
To be sure. And we’re talking novels, not all writing. I wasn’t publishing short stories before novels, mostly, but I was a syndicated columnist and reviewer in newspapers in my early 20s and had four non-fiction books published before my first novel. So it’s definitely all part of the process, and experience-contingent, it seems, rather than age contingent.
And as I posted that I remembered Mr. Ellison of Sherman Oaks, who was right there in the next room knocking out the stories back there in 1956, and also John Brunner, who was sixteen or so when he sold a story (as “John Loxmith” to John Campbell) and well along in his career by the time of the London Worldcon of 1957, when he was 22 or 23.
And then Fred Pohl, who was EDITING a prozine when he was 19, and Cyril Kornbluth, who at 16 or 17 was writing stories for it, and Charles Hornig, who edited Gernsback’s WONDER STORIES at about the same age, and Don Wollheim, another teenage pro back in the Neolithic — and plenty of others. A different era, it was, when you could and did get moving in a hurry.
…and how old was Capote when he wrote “Other Voices Other Rooms”? rosie
Yes, but then: How many writers are Truman Capote?
We do need to be careful do distinguish that some truly exceptional writers will always wreck the curve, but that doesn’t mean that in general the curve does not exist.
Well, yes. And then there’s Mozart…. Mendelssohn…. Keats….Shelley….and don’t forget John W. Campbell (editor of ASF at 27 after a busy six-year career as a writer). Picasso was pretty big stuff in his early twenties, too. But not one of these people ever won the Campbell award, not even Campbell himself.
Ah, but now we’re drifting into other categories. The discussion here is specifically about novels and novelists. Other fields and forms have different criteria and mechanics, which is why 30 is young for a novelist, and old for a rock star or a mathematician.
The curve exists… this article does a great job of explaining why it exists.
I have a great deal of respect for Robert Silverberg, but Robert, your counter-examples fail because they are an attempt to deny the factual starting point (that writing careers tend, on average, to start late).
I didn’t deny the point. I simply observed that two or three generations ago it was a lot easier for a young, talented writer to get a fast start on a writing career. The field is so crowded today that you practically have to be a genius — Ted Chiang, let’s say — to get any attention for your work until you’ve been around for five or ten years. And I doubt that Ted was all that young when his first stories appeared.
It’s definitely a different world.
I think that’s why so many younger writers who might have otherwise gone into science fiction have started Web comics.
Here in NYC, I’m watching a number of young writers get started in the business on a regular basis. I’d say it takes about 3-5 years from a serious start to getting a book deal if you’re talented, motivated, and willing to network. Was it faster back in the bad old days? Possibly. I’ll ask around at readercon next week.
And, of course, there’s fanfic, which hides quite a few talented writers in it’s depths, some of whom have gone on to have pro careers.
It was faster, all right. I won the Hugo for Most Promising New Writer (what has now morphed into the Campbell award) at the 1956 Worldcon in New York. Don Wollheim handed me a deal for an Ace novel practically on the spot. We negotiated the contract two weeks after the convention, I wrote the book that fall, and it was published in, I think, the spring of 1957, six or seven months after the convention, by which time I was already at work on a second novel for Ace. I don’t think it works that way any more. I was, by the way, 21 years old at the time.
Great article – excellent, in fact. I like how you describe certain aspects of writing as well as note the true nature of writing. Thank you!
Just wanted to nitpick about this point:
“Presuming the agent gets a publishing house interested in looking at the manuscript, it could be weeks or even months before there’s response, either positive or negative. If it’s the latter, it’s on to the next publisher.”
This process can happen while finding an agent, since many agents require to see a manuscript (or partial manuscript) exclusively until they respond to you, but the vast majority of the time an agent will send a submission to multiple publishers simultaneously.
“but the vast majority of the time an agent will send a submission to multiple publishers simultaneously.”
“Vast majority?” No. Many houses want an exclusive look at a manuscript, and will get it. It all depends on how the agent wants to play it.
When I was in the editorial department at a major house for six years or so, it was definitely a “vast majority” of the time, but my experience was still limited. Perhaps with genre fiction things are different. In any case, I enjoyed your post.
I’m nearly 41….started writing novels at 37….I’m late!
But since I’m already on number four maybe I’ll still be within average once the publisher bites.
Great advice. I’m, uh, 62, and I’ve been writing since about age 20. Sold my first story while a Marine in a foxhole in Vietnam when my partner bet me ten bucks that I couldn’t write something he liked in 30 minutes. I decided then that I would be a writer because it seemed easy. Bad mistake. Forty-two years later, I’m still at it while I worked and raised five kids in the process. I’ve had a bad agent, a good agent, and plenty of rejection. I made every mistake along the way, including once writing to the CEO of Putnam (looked his address up at the library) demanding someone read my first novel. He arranged it, after writing to me and asking how I got his address, and then I got the manuscript back with tire marks where a truck ran over it. I believe they did it on purpose.
I was set to be published by Bantam after going in through the slush pile, and lost my spot to an established writer because they only had one opening at the time and I was unknown. I’ve made it to the final marketing meeting several times with the majors, but something always happened. So I was published by a small publisher in San Diego, Clocktower Books. I’ve done almost every kind of writing and editing over the years. I currently work as an editor for an editing agency in Washington. Most writers today don’t want to take the time to do it right. You wouldn’t believe some of the manuscripts I see. So I can understand this column all the way because I’ve lived it. Unless a writer drops from heaven, it will take years to get a break. There are rare exceptions, but very few considering how many people think they are writers. The writing world is a nightmare for most people.
Another author timeline.
I’ve always written–poetry, essays, long letters–but it didn’t occur to me to try to write professionally until my first son was born. So….
1986-1989. Starting at the age of 29, I wrote 4 novel-length ms, all of which have been whacked with shovels and buried behind the shed.
1989. Proposal for ELFSHADOW, first published book, accepted. Wrote and revised book.
1991. ELFSHADOW published at age 35.
2009. Working on book #21.
As usual, you take a very sad and depressing topic and turn it into a very light-hearted commentary. As someone who stared writing late in life (50), I can appreciate that I may be collecting Social Security before I publish a novel! Thanks for all of your good works, and may the Gods of Bacon watch over you and yours…
Read the book The Creative Age to get better insight on this topic. According to the neuroscientist who wrote that book, the brain becomes more well-equipt for creativity as we age because of accumulated life experience. When fame and creative success comes too soon, I think it can actually remove an artist from the important element of life experience, which may be why so many young artists are “one hit wonders.” Youthfulness is an advantage in areas like music and acting because we like a good looking body in front of our eyes when watching a performer. In the case of writing, looking young and pretty is no advantage, so the work is more likely to be judged on artistic merit alone. Also, verbal ability consistently improves through life, up until the 80s, unlike mind-body coordination, which declines and may effect physical performance ability, like that required in music and dance. Many visual artists and writers seem to do their best work in their 50s. Piccaso, for example, painted some of his most famous, innovative work in his late 50s, even though he had been considered a prodigy as a child. Shakespeare’s best works were written in his 40s and 50s in a day when that was quite an advanced age. Frankly, our culture would be greatly enriched if we would get rid of our youth-centered thinking.
Arrived here from http://ianthealy.blogspot.com
Lots of people have suggested that it takes about 10,000 hours of effort to get really good at something – whether it’s playing an instrument, or painting, or computer programming.
The thing of it is, most professional musicians started playing when they were five or even younger, and were doing hours of practice a day while still in single digits. Most writers, on the other hand, don’t start seriously working at their writing until they’re out of high school, at least.
Your points about ‘working up’ to a novel and comparing novel writing to marathon running are good. I certainly found at the very beginning that writing lots of very short pieces developed my nuts-and-bolts, sentence structure and dialogue skills. Moving on to short stories builds your plotting and characterisation skills. Writing a novel is another thng entirely – there’s so much big-picture stuff to keep track of, and at the same time you’re employing the same nuts-and-bolts skills you learnt back when your stories were 500 word sketches.
Takes a long time for all that to get into muscle memory, so you can devote most of your attention to plodding along with your novel and not dropping any of your plot threads.
*glares at second novel*. My first was, indeed, a bit of a monstrous thing. I suspect most of them are.
In summary, and in case of tl;dr: Yes, yes, and yes. I wonder, though, about those who start really early – who get those dire first novels out of their systems in their early teens. Are there so few writers who do this?
Thanks for this. So true. I’m 34 and still unpublished and hoping for my “debut” novel. I have of course written five novels during this time! If anyone would care to look at my shallow prose, see below (my blog stat counter is looking v depressing at the moment!)
Wonderful post and discussion! There’s a terrific article in the New Yorker on this subject “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”
My career follows a similar path to many of the other writers who offered their data.
Began writing stories as a child (1978)
Began seriously writing as a teen (1984)
Published poetry & short stories (1993 – 2007)
wrote my first novel at age 28
(self-published it in 2006, at age 36)
began second novel at 35-ish
secured an agent and sold second (& third unwritten novel) to Del Rey at age 37
“Ice Song” hits stores in 2009 (39!)
My second novel is scheduled for publication in 2011. I’m hopeful that they’ll squeeze it in while I’m still 40.
Another aspect of the writing life no one has yet mentioned is the time one takes to scrape together your ambition/desire after receiving many, many rejections and then mustering the courage to brave the publishing markets again. It takes an immense amount of fortitude to keep going. I suspect that most of us work in cycles, between fallow periods of withdrawal and creative regeneration. Stories have their own gestational timeframes and can’t be hurried. Much of our writing time is spent brooding over eggs that may or may not hatch, but what a delight when they do!
Quite an intriguing entry you have here, and a frightening one I may add as well. So the cruelty displayed by the world of novel writing is truly brutal it seems. As I read this, I couldn’t help but feel an impuissance I’ve been experiencing grow ever stronger in myself. I probably shouldn’t be so unassured by such a plight. I’m 15 years old though, unexperienced child and such, so I can’t help but feel helpless.
Anyway, in spite of that, it seems that I am only on the first stage to being a novel writer, according to you. In four days of writing, I’ve only managed some three thousand words of fiction. It took quite a while, and for most of the part I did absolutely nothing but stare at text for ages, just trying to find suitable words to continue it. Even the writing itself seems somewhat awkward.
An excerpt, for an example:
‘The air was cool. The breeze that drifted lightly into our clubroom from its open window was refreshing, poise. From the past rain, dews suspended gently, but nobody would see them. Though I could not smell them, I could feel the humidity in the atmosphere being slightly heavier than usual. The ambience could in all likehood encourage lively and briskness.’
I suppose I’ll keep on writing, but I thought I’d just add this little comment. Thanks though for writing this up. It will prepare me mentally for the foreboding.
How coincidental. I am 28 and basically at the same spot on your timeline. NaNoWriMo was the spur that got me to writing. Who knows? Maybe in 9 years I’ll be famous.
I’m 31, and I recently “finished” my first novel, which I’m currently pimping out to every agent and editor under the sun. I looked in the document properties and realized that I started it in 2002…
In 2000 I wrote a 300 page long spy thriller that was complete poop (as most spy thrillers are). I dropped it an never thought about it again… so maybe I should say I’m 31 and I just finished my second.
Then in 2002 I started writing another one and I got about 40k words in, and life intervened (wrote a thesis, a dissertation, 25 published academic articles, etc, started working full time, etc). I was cleaning out my hard drive and was about to delete it, and wanted to read what I had written. I really liked it and decided to make a run at finishing it. I did, and it ended up at 85k words. I then used my Nanowrimo month to EDIT the thing… I killed 10k words of fluff.
Now I’m simul-writing novels 3 and 4, but I’m really focusing on one of them at the expense of the other. I’m 1/2 way through and hoping that this one might be the one.
What are anyone`s thoughts on ebooks? I`m a young author (24; wrote my first novel at 15 and have written a total of 8 now) and I`ve been offered a contract by an ebook publisher that publishes about 1/3 of what they receive. I`ve read some of there stuff, some is good, some is bad, some is by best-sellers and some has been terribly edited (almost as bad as the Seoul author someone mentioned). They said I can edit it as much as I want before it is a assigned to an editor who “might” work with me (every editor has a different style, they said). I was warned by an agent that my work isn`t ready yet and I should wait and furthermore be a little wary of ebooks. She says that I should not go through with the contract, but then I noticed that while the agent has helped others publish, she has not published anything. Another prominent agent called my submission “legit good” but simply couldn`t take it on because of genre. What should I do? Any advice?
Ok, almost 35 here and just lost hope.
Reblogged this on werds n that and commented:
Well this article gives me some serious relief about why I haven’t finished, editied and published my novel yet. I’ve still written a fair chunk and I have published a fair amount of poetry but it’s hard, it really is, especially when after years of writing, research, self-searching and more you realise it isn’t upto scratch and you’re going to have to start again. Still I will continue as I am now way too old to be anything else.
First, most of those hyperkinetic authors are not newbie novelists; they’re people who have been writing long enough that certain aspects of novel writing are encoded into their brain’s muscle memory.
I acknowledge the “most” above but am amused that I read this as I am working my way through a stack of young Robert Silverberg pulps, from the days when he was pounding out a million published words a year.
Silverbob is an inspiration to us all. A terrifying, six-sigmas-out inspiration.
Writing well seems to take a certain amount of trial, error and practice, even for people with a lot of “natural” talent. This doesn’t seem to be as true for music, where some “prodigy” types can start playing instruments and composing competently at a very young age.
I will also add that life experience can have a huge effect on one’s skill set and ability to spin convincing situations and characters. I’m in my 40’s and am revising my first novel and polishing it for publication. Can’t say how successful I will be, but I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement about the overall quality of the writing, at least. I’ve written fiction off and on throughout my life but never seriously until recently. However, I’ve had to write a lot of non fiction in the interim. Plus I’ve known a lot of people, done a lot of things, and read a LOT of books by now. When I compare what I’m writing now with the samples of my work I wrote in my 20s or early 30’s, there’s no comparison … in spite of their being a long hiatus in between my fiction efforts. I wonder how many people in their teens or early 20’s have the maturity, general knowledge and experience to spin convincing and well-rounded characters, worlds and plots.
Having said this, however, I still regret the time I could have spent improving my craft but didn’t because I was “too busy” with grad school, relationships, hobbies, work and what not.
“Self-publishing is great for one type of book—the type not already found in bookstores.”
That would be one written by me.
Hi there! This blog post could not be written much better!
Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
He always kept preaching about this. I most certainly will
forward this information to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have
a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!
[Deleted because if it was an attempt at satire it was unsuccessful, and if it wasn’t, then wheeeeee! it was even more unsuccessful – JS]
So… it looks like a few spambots found their way here in the past couple of days… but it made me click on the blatherings of others post, which brought me here, and it was exactly the thing that I needed to read today. So thank you spambots.
There are numerous locations on the Web exactly
where you can find downloads for the Apple iphone. In addition, people had to wait around a long time for this jailbreak.
Hmm, now I wonder what Apple will do with all that money?
I didn’t have a option as far as waiting to get a
new phone. New Apple iphone models seem to be launched on
a fairly regular basis. Even geeks have an image to uphold after all, and for them.
Apple has also outfitted this Iphone with
two cameras that make this handset unique from its other released.
With iOS six, the process altered and builders get no more
accessibility to the UDID.