Reading Jeffrey K. Walker’s CV I discovered many surprises. I knew he’d been in the military and is a lawyer, but he’s also had top secret security clearance, was a senior advisor working on a US Government funded project to build the capacity of the Iraqi national criminal justice system, and was a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force. His professional writings include titles like “Strategic Targeting and International Law: The Ambiguity of Law Meets the Reality of a Single- Superpower World.” And he was also a B-52 navigator/bombardier. Today, he’s sharing an article he wrote a while back on what it takes to write fiction as a career. Over to you, Jeff.
I got a lot of traffic on a post I did two weeks ago about new careers after 50. Since my own newest career is writing, I thought I’d follow-up by talking about this crazy idea of becoming an author at the wizened age of 50 or (gasp!) even older. Kids these days…
The Font of All Knowledge regarding aging, the American Association of Retired Persons, says there were 108.7 million Americans older than 50 in 2014—and there are more than that now. Of that 108.7+ million, about 80% think they have a book in them. I’d cut that by a factor of ten to get to those who may undertake writing a book one day. So for those 8.7+ million of you dying to put pen to paper—”pen to paper,” how quaint!—I have a few things I’ve learned along the way that I’ll share.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re fully retired, working part-time, or still pulling fifty-hour weeks at The Day Job. Becoming a writer really just requires saying, “I’m a writer.” And then actually writing something. That, too.
You’ll be shocked how hard it is to say something that simple… or at least say it while sober in respectable company. Sometimes, it’s hard to say it even to your own family. And on your worst writing days, saying it to yourself is hardest of all. Like every new writer who ever lived, you’ll feel like an impostor. This Impostor Syndrome lasts until you hold that first published book in your flop-sweaty hands. And it then recurs with each subsequent book project. It’s a neurosis to be managed, not eliminated.
The best place to start your writing career is with a personal inventory. This consists of several components:
- Emotional State
- Physical State
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
This isn’t as obvious as it seems. Why do you want to write a book? There really isn’t a wrong answer, but you need to honestly assess your objectives in taking up writing because that informs much of what follows. Do you want to write a compelling memoir for wholly personal reasons? A family history for your children and relatives? A swashbuckling historical adventure you’ve been noodling over in your head for years? An artsy and innovative high-brow novel? A non-fiction book about a topic in which you have special expertise? Or straight-up commercial fiction in the thriller or romance or mystery genre? All are equally valid reasons. And you may be motivated by multiple desires.
Not insignificantly, do you want to make enough money from your writing to replace all or part of your income from The Day Job? To supplement your retirement income? Or to cover the costs of producing and marketing your book? Let’s be clear about earning money from your writing.
When you inevitably run into a self-identified writer who claims, “Oh, no, no, no! My art is above base considerations of filthy lucre,” punch this individual in the face and move on. You can omit the punch, if you fear prosecution. This insufferable auteur-type has nothing to teach you and will guilt you about wanting to make money from your intellectual property. There’s also a high probability this person’s writing is unreadably self-indulgent.
Ahh, Time! That most precious of resources! And I’ll stop there before I go all poetic. When I first said, “My name is Jeff and I’m a writer,” I had the dual advantages of the financial resources and the spousal tolerance to spend a year just writing fiction. I managed to produce all of one novel and most of another in that year. Once that year was over, however, I had to return to Actual Paid Employment, taking on a growing number of hours of legal consulting work. My third novel took almost two years—there’s a definite correlation there.
If you’re fully retired from The Day Job, you probably have more time on your hands than you ever expected or currently want, so your available writing time is extensive. On the other hand, if you’re still working full-time, don’t despair. The question for you is what time can you carve out for writing? You should approach calendaring and protecting your writing time the way your investment advisor tells you to save for retirement—pay yourself first. Schedule writing time, announce it to your family and friends, and then guard it like a junkyard dog. Also, develop an immunity to the indulgent little smiles and nods you’ll get from people when you tell them it’s your “writing time.”
Most writers I know set aside time during the same part of the day, with the majority preferring mornings. I know a few who swear their most productive time is late at night. Having taken to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admonition about the dark night of the soul, I’m decidedly a morning writer.
If you have a comfortable pension, social security, and/or 401(k) income [or whatever retirement savings mechanism your country offers], this is easy beans. If you’re somewhat younger and/or somewhat poorer, there will be trade-offs. There are two components to your financial inventory: the money you need to keep body and soul together and the budget for your book. Even in this day of self-publishing that’s as easy as hitting the send button on a Kindle file, unless you’re impervious to embarrassment and have no concern over making sales, your book is going to need some capital investment. (I have an entire blog on book budgeting scheduled in the near future.)
You must honestly assess your level of self-discipline. Generally, your spouse or significant other will be more than happy to help with this. It’s likely he or she has already rendered an opinion.
The most important thing separating people who just want to say, “I’m a writer” (usually spoken with a Manhattan and a cigarette) from those who actually want to do writing, is the self-discipline they bring to the task. There is only one way to make that stack of manuscript pages get thicker—writing them one word, one sentence, and one paragraph at a time. As the always sage and seldom sober Papa Hemingway taught us, “All you have to do is right one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Then write another one.
There are lots of techniques and tricks to keep your forward momentum—I’ll write about some of those in a future post, too—but there’s no substitute for grit, for the sticktoitiveness that will muscle you through your first agonizing draft. Self-discipline is also the only known preventative cure for writer’s block. That and a lot of bourbon.
So give yourself some time for a mano a mano with that person in the mirror. If you’re somewhat certain you can handle the delayed gratification of creating a 120,000-word manuscript and then putting it through half a dozen (or more) vicious edits and revisions, then welcome to the writer’s tribe. If not, you may want to consider blogging or podcasting instead. Or maybe stick to golf.
I don’t want to sound all New Agey and Group Huggy about this, but writing does require a deep well of emotional reserves. No matter how successful your prior professional life may have been, you’re exposing yourself to a whole new world of doubts, criticisms, inadequacies, and general neuroses when you embark on your new writing career. Remember there will be no mediation between your literary creations and the very judgmental reading public. It’s all yours and you’re hanging out there naked, protected only by the words you’ve written.
In addition, can you keep yourself emotionally bounded by realistic expectations? You’re unlikely to become fantastically rich or land a guest spot on a late-night talk show. The best way to ground your expectations is through honest introspective analysis at the “Motivation” step of this personal inventory. There’s a reason that one is first.
On the other hand, there is no joy like the elation of positive reviews, encouraging comments from other writers, or sales reports that prove people have spent their hard-earned money on your book.
Since I’m talking to people over 50, let me caution against deluding yourself about the physicality of writing. When I was a 19-year-old college student, I could sit at a typewriter for 12 or 14 hours and pound out that overdue research paper. Not so easy four decades later. For me, there’s eyestrain, shoulder pain, a sore lower back, and mental fogginess that kicks in after a few hours of intense writing. It’s not a good idea to plan your writing life around marathon sessions. And that loops right back to time and self-discipline. That’s not to say there won’t be random days when you’re completely Lost In Storyland and the words are coming in a flood. On those glorious and rare days, write until you drop. Then take 1000 mg of ibuprofen and a few shots of brown liquor.
How much support can you expect from those around you? First and foremost, you need to have The Writing Talk with your spouse or significant other. The reality is you’re going to disappear behind a closed door for long stretches of time. You’re going to need agreement to be left alone. (See, supra, protecting your writing time.) By happenstance, I married a woman who is both very supportive of my writing and—double bonus!—an outstanding editor. (I’ll talk more about our “family business” approach to writing in a future blog.) My wife, Kay-Kay, and I also have three children and a couple of grandchildren. You need to factor them into the equation, too. (More on my adult kids’ role in the “family business” later, too.)
I’m an attorney by training, so I’ve spent most of my adult life writing professionally. You simply can’t avoid it if you’re making a living at the bar. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me, usually at some writer’s conference, “Oh, so you’re new to writing?” Well, no, I’m not. I’m a new novelist, but I’ve been a professional writer for years.
What I’ve long carried in my toolbox is a thorough knowledge of and years of experience in the mechanics of writing English prose. And the importance of that is not to be gainsaid. It’s often remarked in writing workshops, “Know the rules before you choose to break them.” I came in knowing the rules, so I feel entitled to break them when necessary.
If you consider yourself a weak or awkward writer, you’ll need to begin farther upstream.
If your mechanics aren’t solid, best start at the local university, community college, or writing center to sharpen your skates. I caution against jumping into creative writing as a means of learning basic grammar, punctuation, and elements of style. That will only undermine your self-discipline and exacerbate your Impostor Syndrome.
Louise Aronson, author of the book “Elderhood,” bemoans that tendency in American culture to “talk about the bads of old age and not the goods.” The five decades or more you’ve spent on this earth prior to jumping into authorship are a rich storehouse of resources and skills to help you succeed as a writer-entrepreneur. There is no such thing as wasted time to a writer–everything is grist for the word mill.
If your kids and grandkids routinely roll their eyes and beg you not to tell that same story again, you may have well-developed storytelling skills. (Hey, at least they remember them, right?) And being a working writer extends well beyond putting words on paper. Even if you’re picked up with a juicy contract by one of the Big Five publishing houses, unless your last name ends with King or Gabaldon or Grisham, most of the marketing for your book is going to fall on your shoulders. You may have deep prior skills in that area. Public speaking is an important part of any author’s life—book club chats, library presentations, book signings, school visits, and more. If nothing else, you’ve lived long enough to work through your fears and know the value of sticking to a long-term project with a difficult but achievable goal.
None of this is intended to discourage you from your new career as a writer. Rather, it’s meant to give you some ideas for approaching your new writerly life with a clear eye and well-grounded expectations. But the payoff can be enormous—and not necessarily in dollars. Although dollars are nice. It’s in the process of creating something beautiful and moving and lasting that will survive long after you’re gone. And that’s priceless.
Jeffrey K. Walker writes historical fiction. His award-winning Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy explores World War One and its aftermath. The trilogy includes: None of Us the Same, Truly Are the Free, and No Hero’s Welcome.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.