Recently a young writer on Twitter lamented the fact that they were, perhaps, at thirty years old and still unpublished, too old to achieve their dream of becoming a published writer. The myth that a writer must publish in their 20s or risk being over the hill, too old, too irrelevant, is a pervasive one. Perhaps it is fueled by the popularity of Young Adult fiction, which would, perhaps, being catered towards young people, favor a more youthful voice. Perhaps it is simply authors’ networks on sites such as Twitter and Goodreads skew young, creating the overall impression that writers are being published at greater numbers in their 20s than in their 30s and 40s. Whatever it is, the myth of the young prodigy is just that, mostly a myth. If you are approaching 30, or, like me, 40, and haven’t been published yet, there are a great many reasons why you should not lose hope. In fact, sometimes being published later can even be better than being a young prodigy.
Writers get better with age
Wait, don’t roll your eyes at me yet; this is not the meaningless platitude that it sounds like. Whereas other creatives — painters, musicians, sculptors — can produce brilliant work while very young (call it a fluke of talent, or the genius of a prodigy), a novel relies far less on sheer talent and much more upon skill and experience. An inexperienced writer may hit upon a few brilliant lines, an entire poem, but the amount of brilliance required to create a truly brilliant novel is generally something that takes time. Now, let me add, before some 20-something takes offense, that of course great young talents do come along every now and then; however, the majority of us are going to need more time to hone our craft. With time we acquire not only more writing skills and techniques, we acquire lire experience. The “write what you know” adage can be fairly limiting if you’re 24 in ways that it will not be when you are 44.
You can publish too young
You are never too young to start writing, but I do firmly believe that you be too young to publish. I don’t believe there is any magic number, for it will vary from person to person, but if you publish before you are ready you may find yourself piegeonholed before you even really know yourself as a writer. The stuff you love at 25 might not actually what you wish to base your entire career on. Take the example of Terry Brooks, who was pigeonholed early on as a Tolkien clone and struggled for years to shake that label. If you publish before your skills are up to par you may also find yourself in the unenviable position of having published a dud. If your first book is a flop, or at best a mid-lister, will you be given a second chance? Perhaps. Some authors change agents, or even genres, and make a successful second go of it. However, there is no denying that it is much easier to keep momentum going than to regain lost momentum. Think about those people you knew who were ultra successful in high school, but sort of fizzled out later in life. There is simply something to be said for the idea that success often sits more comfortably on the shoulders of those with a bit more experience and maturity.
Your capacity to accept criticism is better when you get older
Taking criticism can be hard. I read a Goodreads review recently in which the review writer mentioned how the young author whose book she was reviewing had a propensity for mentioning and calling out her negative Goodreads reviews in social media. This made the reviewer highly uncomfortable, feeling like if she spoke honestly, she was running the risk of being put on blast by someone with a larger following and more social capital than she, a regular person reviewing a book for other readers. While it can be hard, authors have a strong responsibility not to interact with their negative reviews, and to take criticism, provided it is given in good faith, with grace. Grace, however, is often something that develops later in life (I myself was not a very gracious 25 year old). A young writer who finds themselves unable to handle criticism may alienate the very reviewers who are responsible for hyping a book and driving sales. On the other hand, praise can be a heady thing. The older we are, the more we learn to handle praise without allowing it to go to our heads. Young writers who get too used to lavish praise may find it harder to grow as writers, feeling like they have no reason to improve. While many authors will warn other writers, don’t read the reviews, ignoring reviews altogether takes a certain amount of self discipline that few young people have.
The myth is simply untrue
About 10 years ago writer Jim Hines did a survey of over 200 novelists and found that the average age at publication for an author’s first novel was 36. Not 25, not even 30, but 36. Now, that’s the average, which means that many published younger than that, but many published older. It seems that, overall, the majority of novelists were about 30-40 years old when they sold their first book. So the idea that you must be a wunderkind, be published in your 20s or not at all, is simply not true.
Now, my disclaimer, lest young authors take offense
If you’re a young published writer reading this, please understand, I’m very happy for you and wish you all the success in the world. This is not meant as an attack on young writers, but rather, I hope to give those writers who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, or even older, a bit of encouragement. Youth is not everything, and writing is perhaps one of the few creative industries in which youth is not always an advantage. Of course there are plenty of reasons why publishing in your 20s is great, and perhaps even better than publishing later in life, but if you’re a published writer in your twenties, you’ve achieved the dream. Writers in their 30s, worrying that it might never happen, are the ones who, at the moment, need this boost.
So if you’re an older writer? Keep writing, keep learning, and keep improving. It is never too late, and you are never too old, and as long as you have something interesting to say, and can say it in an interesting way, no matter how old you are, there will be someone out there who wants to read it.