26 August 2022
Novelist Collette Dartford describes the benefits – and challenges – of getting started as an older writer
There’s a thread that appears periodically on Twitter, which involves authors disclosing their age when they were first published. Many aspiring writers endure years of rejections from agents and publishers before finally getting a book deal in their forties, fifties or even sixties. Others simply start writing later in life, such as Frank McCourt, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Angela’s Ashes, when he retired from teaching at the age of sixty.
I was in my late fifties when my debut novel, Learning To Speak American, was published. My three children were grown up, and my husband and I moved to the house we had built in Northern California’s wine country. I was seduced by the idyllic setting and endless sunshine, so much so I wrote a novel about it. That was pretty ambitious considering that as an author, I am entirely self-taught. My background was as a research consultant in the education, health and social care sectors, and while this involved a good deal of writing - mainly lengthy reports for clients - the style was factual and evidence based. I was used to writing executive summaries, presenting data, overviews and bullet points.
When I first began writing Learning To Speak American, I found it difficult to switch off this way of doing things and slip into creative writing mode, which requires a very different skill set. Acutely aware of my limitations, I found a literary consultant in nearby San Francisco, who acted as my mentor. In those early months, as I sent chapters for critique, her feedback was always the same: a tendency to summarise, too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’, hearing the author rather than the characters. Clearly I had a lot of work to do.
As a prolific reader I knew good writing when I saw it, and realised I needed to consume novels not purely for pleasure, but in a more critically analytical way, in order to discern why a piece of writing was particularly compelling. It helped, but only when I consciously, and with some difficulty, let go of my professional writing style, did I find my fiction-writer’s voice.
Many drafts later, I was introduced to another aspiring author at a social event, and she told me about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It was an annual international competition open to unpublished authors, the winner getting a much-prized book deal. It was too close to the deadline for some much-needed editing, but as entry was free, I felt I had nothing to lose by submitting.
Astonishingly, my manuscript was shortlisted. It didn’t get any further and frankly didn’t deserve to (in retrospect it was quite rough in execution), but this unexpected success reassured me that I wasn’t wasting my time and that with dedication and hard work, I might actually see my novel in print one day. Six years later I did, after my agent got me a two-book deal with a large publishing house. My third book, The Mortification Of Grace Wheeler, is out this summer.
At their core my novels are about relationships in crisis - relationships between spouses, lovers, parents, children, siblings - and having decades of life experience has definitely helped with that. Also, it was important to devote myself to writing without worrying about the school run, business meetings or looming deadlines. I know many authors have families and full-time jobs, and I honestly don’t know how they do it. I certainly couldn’t have juggled writing with children and a demanding day job.
But having said that the professional writing aspect of my first career as a researcher perhaps hindered my second career as a novelist, in the early days at least, it also helped. The promotional campaigns in the months prior to the publication of my books involve writing articles, doing radio interviews and podcasts, guest speaking events, readings and book signings. It has proved useful to have a track record in writing non-fiction, being comfortable with public speaking (I presented my research findings to large groups of professionals), and being able to think on my feet.
For example, when my debut was published, I was invited to be one of the speakers at the Sharjah International Book Fair. As it is perhaps the most traditional and conservative of the United Arab Emirates, it would have been inappropriate to talk about some aspects of my book, most notably its themes of adultery and love of wine. Instead, I spoke about how, through fiction, we can access our feelings on difficult subjects such as grief and loss, experiencing them at a remove. (The book’s protagonists are grieving the loss of their only child). On another panel, my contributions fell back heavily on my academic background in politics, which earned me a follow-up interview with Al Jazeera TV.
Every author is different - their personal story and the stories they write. For me, timing was everything. The terms of my American visa meant I couldn’t take paid work, my children were raised, and the beauty of my surroundings inspired me to write a novel. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding.
The Mortification of Grace Wheeler by Colette Dartford is published in paperback by whitefox publishing (£8.99)
You're never too old to write a novel! In this lovely piece, author Sarah Maine looks at the benefits of being an older writer.