So, I'm finally writing THAT novel. The one I said I'd never write, then said I might write, then decided I really ought to write. I'm approaching half-way through the first draft and the thing is taking on a life of its own. It feels like I'm about to start a down-hill gallop through the second half and towards the end. Even so, there's probably at least another year's worth of work to get it to a submittable standard. And then, imagining I got an agent and publisher IMMEDIATELY (because life totally works like that, right?), another eighteen months or so after that before I can realistically expect to see an actual book with my name on it in a bookshop. Being hugely optimistic (if not deluded), we are talking two, maybe three years before I become a debut published novelist.
I'll be in my late-forties by then. And this is something that has given me much pause for thought recently.
The internet is awash with opportunities for 'new' writers. What is a 'new' writer? Is it someone who has just started writing? Or someone who has just started submitting and getting published? You'll also see plenty of references to 'aspiring' writers. FYI, I'm not 'aspiring' to write - I actually do it. I'm 'aspiring' to be published. Quite different. Another favourite soubriquet (sick bags at the ready) is the 'budding' writer. Pur-lease. Why don't you just say 'nubile' and be done with it?
Because my suspicion is that all these terms - new, budding, aspiring - are really euphemisms for 'young'. A new 'young' writer with talent must be a more enticing prospect to a publisher than an older one, by sheer dint of the fact that they have all those writing years ahead of them. More books, more money for everyone.
And yet, how many people beavering away at their first novels are in their forties, their fifties, and beyond, into retirement age? The writer Alison Wells suggested the need for a writing competition for older writers, the entry requirement being that: 'We were doing other things'. She was joking - sort of. I've seen plenty of writing competitions open to people under a certain age. I've never seen one where you have to be OVER a certain age to enter. Why not? Is it just the economics of publishing? Or is it the assumption that young writers have talent but no gumption and need help to get started? We wrinklies can fend for ourselves. And anyway, we probably have jobs and partners that mean we don't need to write for a living, we're just hobbyists. Some of us might get lucky and get our little pet projects published, but really, if we were serious about being writers, shouldn't we have started sooner?
Now, I know all the stories about writers who started late (such as Mary Wesley) or had late resurgences (Barbara Pym), but I wonder if they would have been given a chance today. I don't know the answer to that. I don't know if agents and publishers really care about how old a writer is when they take them on, and I'd love to hear that they don't.
Meanwhile, I do have regrets about not starting sooner. And yet the things I was doing while I wasn't discovering that I was a writer are the things that make me a writer now: living, loving, grieving, make new people inside my own body, laughing, crying, fighting, watching, wondering, regretting, and above all, wondering what it's all about. The first novel I'm writing now is not the first novel I would have written in my twenties, or my thirties. I can't change that, and I really hope that it won't count against me as and when I start sending it out into the world.
At least I can be sure that by then no one would dare describe me as 'budding'.