Plan to Write a Book When You Retire? Some Tips for Late Blooming Writers

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

A lot of people hope to write a book when they retire. And that’s a great plan. Late blooming writers can do very well for themselves if they learn to write well and have something unique to say.

Some writers who became successful authors in their later years were Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was 64 when she published Little House on the Prairie, Bram Stoker, who was 51 when Dracula came out, and Frank McCourt, who was 66 when his first book, Angela’s Ashes made it into print.

Late blooming writers have some advantages over younger people starting writing careers. For one thing, they have decades of experience to write about. And they’ve got a lot more reading under their literary belts. Presumably they’ve read a lot in their chosen genre, so they know their audience, and what that audience expects.

Well, unless they don’t…

The Trouble with Memoirs

Oh, you read mostly thrillers, but you plan to write a memoir about your abusive childhood and fight with prostate cancer? Yeah, most late blooming writers think they’ll start with a memoir.

So start reading! You can’t just sit down and write a memoir if you’ve never read one any more than you can write a mystery if you’ve never read Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler.

When choosing what to write about, it’s good to keep in mind that memoirs are the hardest books to sell — whether you’re querying agents and traditional publishers or self-publishing.

Why? Because it takes topnotch writing skills to write a memoir other people want to read, especially one that chronicles abuse and pain. This week, on Jane Friedman’s blog, editor Hattie Fletcher says, “if you’re asking whether writing this memoir is likely to justify your time and energy, financially — well, unfortunately, that’s probably a very short response letter. It’s almost certainly not.”

However, the “misery memoir” is an accepted genre, and some of them sell very well. Look at James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which was a bestseller until the revelation that it wasn’t a memoir at all, but mostly fiction. Then fans were furious. They wanted a misery memoir, not a novel.

But it’s still not the best way to break into the business. If you’re not famous, nobody much cares about your life story, unless you’ve got a great hook. (Like you’re Elvis’s love child, a kid famously rescued from a well, or you invented the creamsicle.)

Late Blooming Writers Should Think Outside the Book

I have to admit you couldn’t pay me to read most memoirs. Bad ones can be tedious and cringey.

But I’ll read anything David Sedaris writes. His short memoir-like essays are brilliant and hilarious.

If the book you want to write is a memoir, you might consider writing it in bits — otherwise known as “creative nonfiction” essays. You’ll have readers gobbling them up if you write them with a punchline, like David Sedaris, or an uplifting message, like the stories in the “Chicken Soup” anthologies.

Short essays are much easier to sell than a full-length book. They can also be a sales tool if you decide to write a book later.  Published essays help you gather a following and build a “platform.”

In fact, who knows — you may find those essays work well as blogposts, and your “book” should really be a blog.

Turn Your Life Experiences into Fiction

But you don’t have to write a memoir if you want to write about your life experiences. You can write those experiences as fiction. Change names and settings and you’ll probably find the characters take off and lead you to places you never expected.

Ruth Harris wrote a great post a few years ago on turning real life into fiction.

 “After getting bogged down over and over because I kept thinking “it really happened” was important, it eventually dawned on me that ignoring “it really happened” was even more important.”

You just need to be careful you don’t libel anybody. So make sure your bad guy isn’t recognizable as a real person. And if you’re writing about that tall, dark, handsome stranger who totally messed up your life, make him a short gnome-y bald dude and he’ll never own up to being that guy.

Miss Ellwood was a Great Teacher — in 1971

I’ve found that a lot of late blooming writers tend to fall back on what they learned in high school when they pick up writing again. This is fine when it comes to avoiding dangling participles and overuse of adverbs.

But writing in the style of Jack Kerouac is probably not going to impress many publishing professionals in 2023. Hey, Jack Kerouac himself probably couldn’t get a nibble from an agent today. Reading habits have changed.

And now that you’re writing as a grown-up, Miss Ellwood isn’t going to be here to give you a gold star for effort, or praise you for being “honest” when you write cringey confessions and navel-gazing musings.

The truth is, you’re not a student anymore, so nobody’s being paid to encourage your fledgling scribbles. If you want anybody to read your stuff, you have to keep that reader in mind. And she’s probably not Miss Ellwood.

Nobody’s going to read your book because you (sob) spent 4 whole years writing it. Most authors spend that long on their first book. It takes a long time to learn to write narrative prose with the right pacing, tension, action, and characterization to keep a reader turning the pages.

People generally don’t want to pay you for your learning time. You need to produce a saleable product before you can make sales.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

1 thought on “Plan to Write a Book When You Retire? Some Tips for Late Blooming Writers”

  1. One gentle correction, regarding Mr Frey’s fiasco, and a harsher corollary:

    It wasn’t reader expectations that were subverted. It was bookseller expectations that were subverted, because the rigid categories in stores (c. 2005–06), combined with the management imperatives imposed at a Certain Chain, demanded a clear demarcation between “fiction” and “nonfiction.” Memoir wasn’t a category at any of the top four chains, nor on bestseller lists.

    The harsher corollary is that I believed at the time — and later events have reinforced my opinion† — that the sleazebucketry did (in part) originate with the author, but that it was mostly at the direction of the publisher because “nonfiction” was selling better than “literary fiction,” so… But there were sleazebuckets all around. And that’s the real lesson that early-career authors (regardless of age!) should learn.

    † The aftermath of this is actually even worse, even sleazier all around.

Comments are closed.