Friday, October 15, 2010

Fiction After 50? By Ron Benrey, Guest Blogger

Ron Benrey has been a writer all his life (his first job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Monthly) and he subsequently held speechwriting and corporate communications positions at several large corporations. Ron has coauthored nine romantic suspense novels with his wife, Janet. The first was published when they were past 50. He has also written two novellas under his own byline, more than a thousand magazine articles, and ten non-fiction books. The latest “Know Your Rights — A Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” — will be published by Sterling Publishing early in 2011. Ron hold degrees in electrical engineering, management, and law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Ron and Janet live in North Carolina.

Why Are There So Many 50+ Novelists?

I’d scarcely arrived at the first writers conference I attended (I won’t tell you how many years ago that was) when I was struck by a curious fact. The majority of the participants who wanted to write novels were over age 50. Me included.

At the time, there seemed to be two “obvious” reasons for the large number of “authors of a certain age” who are writing their first novels:

The first is that late blooming novelists have distinct advantages compared to younger writers: more time to write, more room to write, (possibly) more financial resources, (possibly) a more cooperative spouse, and fewer personal responsibilities that have to come first.

The second reason is that late bloomers, by living longer lives, have accumulated more life experiences and more stories worth telling. Consequently, they are better positioned to “write about what they know.”

However, I soon realized that these explanations are incomplete. After all, many under-50 novelists find the time to write compelling original fiction without destroying their families, wrecking their marriages, losing their day jobs, or short-circuiting their other day-to-day responsibilities.

And as for life experiences — well, countless young novelists have survived novel-worthy experiences that make older people cringe. Moreover, “write what you know” is not a Commandment; many novelists (younger and older) others have written successfully about topics they researched rather than lived.

More curious than ever, I began to ask late-blooming novelists why they waited so long to start writing fiction. Here’s what I learned from my admittedly unscientific survey:

It happened one day. Many late bloomers told me that after decades of reading novels they abruptly decided that they wanted to write one. As one author explained, “I didn’t really think about it — I didn’t go through a long analysis of the possibilities — it just happened. I cranked up my word processor, started writing fiction, and discovered to my astonishment that I was determined to write a complete novel. Frankly, I wish I’d begun years earlier, but everything seem to click into place when I turned 50.”

Dealing with a steep learning curve. Other late bloomers reported that they wanted to write fiction years earlier, but that it took them decades to develop solid authorial voices — and to learn essential fiction writing skills — before each could tackle something as ambitious as a full-length novel. Many in this group had day jobs that required them to do lots of non-fiction writing — e.g. journalists, lawyers, corporate communicators, and technical writers.

As one of these authors noted,” I’d thought of myself as a part-time writer and had long been proud of my non-fiction skills. But I needed many years to “transmute” those writing skills into an ability to produce decent fiction.”

Time to amass sufficient confidence. A surprising number of older authors said that they tried to write fiction when younger, but the activity “didn’t feel right” to them. One late bloomer told me, “I didn’t see myself as a novelist when I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, nor did I have the required confidence. And then one day reached the point where I gave myself permission to write a novel. The next thing I knew I was writing one.”

I had to learn to like fiction. Several novelists of a certain age — most of them men — confessed that they disliked fiction “for most of their lives.” They didn’t think about writing novels until long after they discovered how much they enjoyed reading fiction. 

One acknowledged,: “When the fiction bug bit, most of my friends and relatives thought I was nuts. They considered me the most unlikely person in the whole world to write a novel. I gloated when I sent them signed copies of my first novel. And guess what? — I still haven’t read “Moby Dick” or anything by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.”

Interestingly, many late-blooming novelists tell me that their decision to start writing was abrupt, and seemingly unprovoked. One author described a “switch being flipped in her brain,” and also admitted that she “can’t explain why the urge to write fiction suddenly became so strong. All at once, I knew that it was something I had to do.”

Another curious phenomenon: Few late bloomers I talk to say that they took writing courses or workshops before they began to write fiction.. Most jumped right in: they started to write a novel — and then honed their developing skills by reading how-to books, going to writers conferences, and taking local fiction-writing courses. This explains why so many first-time participants I meet at writers conferences have finished several chapters of their first novel. A few have written complete manuscripts.

Why the write-first-learn-later attitude. I think it’s because most starting-out writers assume that it’s easy to write publishable fiction — until they actually give it a serious go. Fifteen years ago, I certainly assumed that I’d be able to sit down and write fiction merely by harnessing my determination to write a novel.

Naturally I wasted lots of time and effort — key resources that are in short supply for late-blooming novelists. Writing fiction is a mixture of art and craft: it takes time to know what you don’t know. Trial-and-error education worked in my case, but looking back I’ve decided that I paid too much “tuition” for my lessons.

Happily, writing fiction later in life is a grand tradition. Tony Hillerman wrote bestsellers in his ‘80s. Raymond Chandler wrote his first mystery novel at age 51. Agatha Christie wrote into her 70s — and James Michener into his 80s. And we all know the story of Helen Hooven Santmyer, whose first novel “And Ladies of the Club” was published (and became a bestseller) when she was 88. She needed more than 50 years to write it.

Few contemporary late-bloomers want to wait as long as Helen did to see their fiction in print (or on an ebook-reader screen). That’s why Janet and I recently launched Fiction After 50 a blog devoted to providing the resources and support that writers of a certain age need to become a successful late-blooming novelists. Our goal is to shrink the time it takes to master the skills required to write publishable fiction. (By the way, you don’t have to be over 50 to visit FA50.)


Karen said...

Great post! I fit your profile but I "cut my teeth" on writing aritcles and essays for magazines and newspapers before I started into fiction. And I did take some Writers Digest courses that helped get me started. Writing the novels is not as difficult as getting them published. I've come sooooo close many times--just not quite conquered that slush mountain yet.

Thanks for the insight. I'm heading to the new blog. Just give me a little time. . .I move slower these days ;-)

Bonnie Doran said...

Thanks for the insight. I started writing a novel at over 50 for most of the reasons you stated, plus being challenged by a writing workshop leader. I appreciate knowing I'm in good company.

dirtywhitecandy said...

What an interesting post. I started earlier, but I have many friends in their 40s who are teetering on the brink. Many did as some of your interviewees - they started several in their 20s and 30s, and then decided novel-writing wasn't for them. But I know they hear the siren song.

Old Salt said...

Great post. I'm just wrapping my first ms, and I'm 64 and twice retired. With my luck, my kids will be over 50 before this thing sees the light of day.

Jill W said...

Thanks for a great post. Not quite 50, but getting closer. I just subscribed to FA50. Looking forward to the useful resources.

Meg Moseley said...

" shrink the time it takes to master the skills..." That's a great concept for writers of any age. I definitely qualify for FA50. I'm on my way over there. Thanks!

M said...

I met Ron at the last Blue Ridge Mt. conference. I started writing for children. But when I got invloved with a local writers group, I discovered I had stories waiting to be put on paper. Happy surprise.