Awhile ago I spoke at a writers conference where one of the attendees asked, “Do older writers have a chance? Especially if agents and publishers are looking for a long-career investment?”
That is a great question. Does it matter how old you are? No, it doesn’t. When your proposal lands on our desk or on an editor’s desk, it is the words on the page that speak to us. I rarely even think about the writer’s age, ethnicity, economic status, or any other nonwriting ability classification while I’m reading the sample chapters. Of course, there are exceptions. A few times I could tell the author was very young by the way they were writing a romance scene; they simply had not yet truly “fallen in love” and couldn’t quite express it authentically and with deep emotion.
We have a number of clients who signed their first contract in their 20s, and we also have a number who were in their 70s. What matters is whether they’ve written a great book and have a platform to sell it from.
Maybe some examples from publishing history will illustrate the range in ages:
Christopher Paolini started writing when he was 15 and published Eragon when he was 18. (Published by his parents. Then, a year later (2003) Knopf, a division of Random House, published it; and it became a New York Times bestseller.)
Mary Shelly published Frankenstein when she was 19 or 20.
Ken Follet published Eye of the Needle at age 25.
Stephen King published Carrie at age 26 (1974).
Frank Peretti was 35 when This Present Darkness was published in 1985.
Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods at age 65.
Katherine Anne Porter published her first collection of short stories when she was 40. But she didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize until she was 76.
Myrrha Stanford-Smith signed a three-book deal for her first published novels when she was 82. (Click the link if you don’t believe me.)
Franz Kafka’s first published work, The Trial, was released posthumously. (The fascinating book Franz Kafka’s Last Trial is the story of his loyal friend Max Brod who could not bring himself to fulfill Kafka’s last instructions: burn his manuscripts. Instead, Brod devoted his life to championing Kafka’s work, rescuing his legacy from both obscurity and physical destruction. [from the back-cover copy of the book].)
As you can see, the ages are quite varied. In a great article written for Writers Digest (available online here), Scott Hoffman suggests four things to be careful about if you are “older” and approaching an agent:
1. Avoid references to the word “retirement.”
2. Be energetic in how you present yourself.
3. Make sure it’s clear you are more than a one-trick pony.
4. Don’t date yourself.
Read the whole article for a full discussion of this topic. He presents some good advice. It is similar advice I’ve heard given to those trying to find a job in today’s marketplace when they are 60 years or older.
In the meantime, I return to the title of this post. Age is just a number. You are as young as you feel. (Today I feel old and cranky, so watch out!) But your idea can be timeless. You have time to craft those ideas and make them scintillating.
(A variation of this post ran in January 2013 and was inspired by a comment on our agency’s blog in 2012 by accomplished author Dr. Richard Mabry who stated, “Age is just a number.” Thank you for the inspiration, Doc!)
This made my day.
Such an inspiration!
Johnnie Alexander Donley
“I just feel like me.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys your blog comments who’s thinking how glad we are that you do. (And how’s that for a little convolution of a sentence?!)
Thank you Johnnie, you’re very kind. And brilliant. 😀
Good question. Things like “I was homecoming queen last year.” or “My favorite music group is ‘One Direction.'” etc. It is not that we are worried about professional behavior or responsibility. As I mentioned it is usually an issue of craft. The writer might have wonderful talent but not yet able to put it together. And it tends to show most often in the area of romance. The depth is missing.
But that isn’t always the case. Careful not to hear me establishing a rule. We have a number of younger clients. The point is that Age doesn’t really matter!
You inspire me, Dr. Mabry.
Mindy, you have a year and a half. You could be contracted by 50 if you are working on it… and have found a good agent. I’m cheering for you.
Love the Satchel Paige quote.
This is so true! When people ask me how old I am, they look at me with their mouths hanging open and say “I can’t believe it!” I think it’s in the way you carry yourself, as well as your outlook on life. I’ve known some pretty grumpy 30 and 40 year old folks who look a lot older than me. Thanks for the reminder that we are never too old to write that amazing story.
Bless you! I read this after experiencing a breakthrough on my languishing manuscript this morning. For the first time in ages I feel excitement and hope. Methinks this isn’t a coincidence.
Joy Neal Kidney
I published my first book at age 75. The second one will probably be published before I turn 77. Have at least two more percolating! “Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for One Iowa Family During World War II.” Five brothers served. Only two came home. Leora was their mother, and my delightful grandmother. I’ll be giving a program about the second one next month, “Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.” Amazed, humbled, and havin’ fun!
This sounds so interesting–would love to hear your program and read your book!
Kristen Joy Wilks
This makes me laugh. We writers seem to come up with reasons to fail as readily as we come up with reasons we will be wildly successful in an incredibly short amount of time. Ha! I remember thinking that I should be published before we had any children, so that my talents could be well developed before adding any childish insanity to our world. Ha! I wrote steadily through the birth of three baby boys, through insane toddler years involving much mud and many captured bugs, though childhood sword fights and Nerf wars, and I am still writing with my three delightfully grumpy teenage sons in the house. We write, regardless of the age or stage we find ourselves in. Your urging to express oneself with energy makes me think of my grandfather (and neighbor) who will be 103 next month. So many people have told us that they could never live off-grid at the remote Bible camp which provides both our occupation and home. It does involve producing our own electricity, hauling our garbage to the dump ourselves, and plowing our own roads in the winter. My grandfather still lives here and not only that, he calls up my husband regularly to make sure that he has remembered various things. Did he leave the doors open in Bobcat Lodge so that the pipes won’t freeze in the bathrooms, or shovel all the paths up to the tube hill, or plow the snow off our road before it gets rained on and turns into concrete? I love it! He even accidentally wrote over 1,000 handwritten pages when asked to write a single page for the family photo albums. His niece and I helped him self-publish them and now we have a record of his younger days and how he and my grandmother started the camp. So I can say with absolute certainty, that should you get a proposal from someone who is almost 103, do not dismiss them! Grandpa Del has shown us all how energetic one can be, even past 100!
I love your story! Thank you!
Age is just a number,
and Bondi’s just a beach;
sequoia is just lumber,
and all seems out of reach
in the dawn beyond a night
ruled by black-heart fear,
and there seems nowt that I can write
in this or any year,
but nonetheless my fingers touch
the keyboard yet again,
and though I think there is not much
to say, I will remain
to nurture hope that hope exists
at the edge of the abyss.
Moses was right around 120 years old when he wrote down the first five books of the Bible, and he had been through 40 years in the wilderness!
Scripture tells us “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)
Inspiration to keep going.
“I’m only 17,” I tell people. “And holding.” I got this from the George Burns movie, Oh, God. When asked how old were Adam and Eve when he formed them, Mr. Burns thought about it a moment, then said, “17. It’s the perfect age to be.”
Stay young and keep writing. It keeps the mind fresh and encourages you to get outside, to work and play, to experience life because all that energy then comes back with you. More oxygen keeps the mind alert, which is why a lot of nations demand workers do 10-15 minutes of stretching before they begin their shift. If you can’t, then download something on desk exercises. Get the blood moving! then the work moves as well.
My blessings on you!
Thank you. The writing journey is a remarkable one. It takes a lot of will power to stay the course, but it also takes a love of the written word and an ability to connect with the reader. It’s nice to know that the writing of books and getting them published is open to all ages across the spectrum. My grandmother wrote two books of her musical compositions. It was a huge endeavor that I didn’t appreciate at the time. Now her works are timeless. As we age, we come to see the gift that life is. We want to share that gift with anyone who will sit a spell and consider our message. I think the worry with age is that we’re running out of time, but that can’t be helped. We focus on the present and enjoy the journey. And we smile in anticipation of what’s ahead and around the bend.
I’m so thankful our lives, and our writing paths, are not defined by our age. Our perspective on life and on story will reveal itself in our works . . . whether in blog form, article form, or book form. It’s reassuring to know agents and editors are less concerned about age than they are about the quality of the submission.
Steve, I barely recall leaving that comment, but I stick by it. My first contract was when I was about 65, and I’m still writing. Age is just a number.
Love this. Thanks.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Since age is just a number, the number I have chosen is 32. (Steve, you know me, so don’t laugh.) Both of my sons are now older than I am.
I am ready to present myself as energetic, especially since I run ten miles a day (no kidding).
Thanks for a great post!
As attributed to Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Pulitzer Winning “A Confederacy of Dunces” by O’Toole was published after his death
This is great for me. I retired since compiling my query draft and have considered making changes.
I had to laugh because I’m one of those who received her first contract at age 73. Well, I’m 85 now and still growing strong. Fourteen novels through this agency with Tamela and several with Barbour and now have over 60 novels and novellas in print. I still have more stories in my head and will keep writing as long as the Lord allows.