The Second Act Novelist: 6 Ways to Prepare

second act novelist
Photo credit: daskerst via VisualHunt / CC BY

Today’s guest post is by writer Kathleen Jones (@joneslepidas).

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a passion for the written word. As far as I was concerned, devising an imaginary world full of colorful characters was more fun than work. Throughout my school years, my creative writing—which always came easily to me—routinely won kudos from teachers. I was sure that once I graduated, I would launch a brilliant career as a novelist.

Then I became aware of one inconvenient fact: most novelists, even those lucky ones who manage to snare a contract with a publisher, struggle to make a living. So, with great reluctance, I entered the corporate world.

But in my mid-forties, bored and disillusioned by my job, I returned to my first love and began penning a novel. Ten years later, the axe finally fell, and I found myself forced into early retirement. Sort of.

By then, I had completed two novels. I hadn’t tried to publish my first novel—I didn’t feel it was strong enough to withstand the tough scrutiny of agents and editors—but I was happy with my recently completed second novel, and I felt that it had real potential. And, thanks to years of diligent saving and investing, I now had the freedom to pursue, on a full-time basis, the only work I had ever wanted to do: the work of a novelist.

It’s a post-retirement career that other would-be novelists, trapped for decades in mundane, unfulfilling jobs, might consider. Of course, it’s possible to write a novel while employed at a job, but let’s face it: at the end of a long, hard week, it’s very difficult to find the time and energy to produce truly great work.

If this is something you’d like to pursue in your retirement years, here are practical suggestions based on my own experience.

1. Start practicing the habits you’ll need as a full-time writer.

Get into the saving and investing habit as soon as you can. Set a realistic goal for the amount of money you want to invest each year, and try to invest a portion of it every few months.

While you’re still employed at that job, start writing. Try to write at least a few pages every week, and write them whenever and wherever you can: during your lunch break at work, during your daily commute on public transit, on weekends. Better yet, create a schedule where you set aside time each week for your writing.

2. Increase your knowledge about the business and craft.

Get to know the book publishing business. Check out articles like this one on the industry, and familiarize yourself with influential book bloggers. A great place to start is the Top 50 Writing Blogs for 2016 by Bryan Hutchinson. Consider purchasing a book on the craft of novel writing; an excellent beginner’s resource is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel by novelist Tom Monteleone.

3. Treat your writing as a business, not a hobby.

Once your employer decides that they can do without you, you need to start viewing your writing career as a business. And your business—like any other business—requires marketing support. Authors market their work through online platforms such as author websites, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If you know virtually nothing about online platforms (I sure didn’t!), then I suggest purchasing a book to guide you. Chuck Sambuchino’s Create Your Writer Platform is full of smart ideas. Derek Murphy’s Book Marketing Is Dead covers both online platforms and direct book marketing.

4. Set some deadlines.

The daunting task of writing a book becomes much easier when you break it down into small tasks and set realistic deadlines for each task. For example, you might aim to write 3 or 4 pages per day, 15 pages per week, and 60 pages per month. Based on that level of output, you might plan to finish writing your first draft in six months. Of course, since life is unpredictable, you’ll probably need to change at least some of your deadlines, but the mere act of setting them will motivate you to finish writing the book.

5. Create a long-term schedule.

Setting up an author platform; writing and rewriting a book; trying to sell your book to a publisher; self-publishing, promoting, and marketing your book … the list of book-related tasks is long and seemingly endless, especially for new authors. And what if you forget a task? Or do a task at the wrong time? Or do the wrong thing?

To save your time and sanity, create a long-term schedule, preferably in an electronic format such as Word. List all of the tasks, in order, that you need to complete, then assign tentative dates to them. Of course, the tasks and dates will probably change—over and over and over again—but at least you now have a realistic idea of what you need to do to bring your book to life.

6. Revise your work until you can’t see any way to improve it.

Rewrite your novel over and over again until you’re (more or less!) satisfied with it. If you’ve never published a book before, consider hiring a professional editor. Hiring these pros isn’t cheap, but your reputation as a novelist is at stake, and you might improve your chances of getting published by a traditional house. Be sure to hire reputable people who have relevant experience with novels like yours. Jane Friedman offers a list of helpful resources; Canadians can hire experienced professionals through the Editors’ Association of Canada website.

Above all, stay motivated. 

One of the biggest obstacles you’ll encounter is discouragement. More than likely, your family, spouse, friends, co-workers, and everyone else won’t support your writing career. They’ll probably view it as an unattainable dream; after all, very few people write books, and most of them can’t even muster up the courage to try. Once you’ve finished writing your book, you’ll also have to deal with rejection from literary agents and editors, as well as negative reviews from readers. To avoid giving in to despair, try to connect to other authors. Join groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and ask other authors for their advice. If your query letter to agents isn’t working, hire a professional editor to look it over.

I just started my new “retirement career” more than six months ago. Although it’s far more work than I ever envisioned and although I haven’t yet released my first (published) novel, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. In a short period of time, I’ve set up my online platform, connected with hundreds of interesting people, and worked with a substantive and line editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. If you’ve always wanted to write a book, and you suddenly find yourself retired—and if you can afford it—don’t hesitate. Start your full-time writing career. Now.

If you’re a second-act novelist, what preparatory steps helped you? How would you guide someone else? Let us know in the comments.

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