As a girl, I absolutely adored the Little House on the Prairie series. I would wake early in the morning, sit at the kitchen table, and devour each book. I was inspired by young Laura and her adventures on the prairie. What I could have never known then is what an inspiration Wilder the author would be for me as an adult.
Wilder didn’t publish her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, until she was 64. During the earlier part of her life, she had taught and farmed and raised a family. She had written a bit on the side for small local publications in her fifties, but it wasn’t until her retirement investments were wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash that she wrote Little House in the Big Woods. The book was published in 1932, and it was the start of a writing career that has resulted in the beloved TV series, spin-off books, and millions of copies sold. Like Frank McCourt, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes was published when McCourt was 66, Wilder is proof that it’s never too late to write a book.
I’ve previously written about why I believe that it is not only possible but in some ways advantageous to start a writing career after the age of 50 (see “Is it Too Late to Start Writing After 50?”). I am all for older writers taking the plunge, but it is important to be aware that it will be a different process than starting a writing a career at 25 may have been.
Here are a few things that are particularly important in order to start writing after 50.
First and foremost: Set realistic goals. Is this book going to change your life? No. After publication, you will not be a different fifty-plus-year-old person. You won’t be richer (most likely) or instantly more popular or somehow more glamorous. You will be pretty similar to the person you were before, only this fifty-plus-year-old person has written a book. You might get some good reviews and some nice invitations to speak, but, for the vast majority of authors, your life will not be utterly and instantly and dramatically transformed as the result of having written a book. So ask yourself: What are you hoping to get out of the experience?
Finding time to write is hard at any age, and at this stage in your life, you likely have more commitments and responsibilities than you did in your twenties. But the need for self-discipline when writing a book cannot be underestimated, and, establishing writing discipline is not easy. Stop trying to “find time” to write; you need to make time.
Also, keep in mind that writing is a solitary exercise. You must schedule and tolerate alone time. I am a morning person. I devoted time in the wee hours of the morning to write. I also write better in blocks of time, so I utilized weekends and blocks of vacation time for writing. I sought out quietude, as I don’t focus well with background noise. I found scenic places in the mountains of Woodstock, Vermont, and by the ocean in Sanibel Island, Florida, to write; changing environments over time helped to spark my creativity. While your preferred timing and choice of venue may differ from mine, you must allocate time to write on a regular basis. Document your progress in a journal, as you may find that certain days and times are more productive for you and foster better discipline. That said, it’s also important to pace yourself. If you need to take a break, take one. Walk in nature. Have coffee with a friend. Taking scheduled writing breaks throughout your writing process is a healthy habit and should help to keep your thoughts and ideas fresh. Try to balance breaks with a sense of accountability. Just make sure that you are setting goals—they could be time-based goals or word count goals—and meeting them.
When taking on something new, maintain good health by staying in shape both mentally and physically. It’s difficult to stay disciplined and write constructively if you are stressed and exhausted. A daily meditation practice (even as short as 5 minutes per day) will help you to discipline your mind—to de-stress, focus, and erase mental blocks. It will help silence the critical voices in your head. Meditation will help to train your mind to get into the “writing zone” more quickly.
Confidence and drive
As a writer, you must have self-confidence in your ideas and your ability to successfully execute the work. If you’re a bit of a perfectionist like me, you must accept that your first draft will not be perfect. Nor will your second draft.
All writers feel frustrated at times and want to quit. So, it’s not just you. You may have, at this stage in your life, reached some level of success in other arenas, so it may be exasperating to find yourself a novice again. Voice the commitment to hang in there when things get tough. I found that continually learning more about the skill of writing as well as about the publishing industry helped me to more fully embrace this new discipline. A can-do attitude is essential.
Writing is a solo endeavor, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. You may want to join a writing group or engage a writing coach so that you have regular check-ins and can receive encouragement and support as well as constructive feedback. I worked on my book manuscript with the help of a developmental editor to keep my writing on track and to have a system of checks and balances in place.
I also highly recommend teaming up with younger people in the industry. You may be accustomed at this stage in your life to dealing with the most senior people in their fields. However, while they might have some perspective because of age, you don’t necessarily need that, as you have your own. A younger person offers fresh eyes, with accompanying insights and clarity about the publishing industry. The same way you don’t want to be judged for your age, don’t assume that because they are younger, they don’t have anything to offer. A little bit of youthful energy might be just the magic ingredient that you need.
Recognize that publishing is a business. If you go through a traditional publishing house, publishers need to be certain that you have the ambition and fortitude to do all the things that it takes to sell books. Showing up with a sense of vitality will help to improve your chances of getting an agent or an editor to take on your work, but ultimately what matters is what you put on the page. There’s no reason that age needs to be a part of the conversation you have with publishing professionals. On the other hand, your life experience affect your writing and your approach to a new endeavor, so, if your age offers you an advantage, use it! I did—and I wrote a better book than I ever could have written twenty years ago. And you can, too. Just always remember: Your talent doesn’t have an expiration date.