Written by Anni Domingo
At the age of seventy my novel Breaking the Maafa Chain is about to be published by Jacaranda and I wonder, when is the best time to write your debut novel?
When To Start Writing
It is a myth that novelists are mostly young and energetic, ready to start their careers in their twenties, going ahead with power and strength. On examining that fiction, you find that authors with debut novels in their twenties are the extraordinary ones. Authors like Mary Shelly who wrote her ground-breaking classic novel, Frankenstein at 19. Zadie Smith was 25 when her novel White Teeth was published, and Eleanor Catton became the youngest person to ever win the Man Booker prize at 28 with The Luminaries.
We hear about these young novelists because they are winning prizes and being celebrated; they are indeed exceptional. Of course, there are some writers who might debut earlier but not find success until much later. Phillip Pullman, for example, wrote his first novel at 27, but didn’t rise to success until the publication of The Northern Lights when he was 50.
It can take many years to write and perfect a novel. A study of professionally published novelists found the average age for first-time publication is thirty-six years as late twenties, early thirties seem to be when investing time in hours of writing is possible.
In fact, further research shows that most authors debut in their thirties or forties. We do not always hear about these authors because the list would be long and therefore no longer remarkable or special. The survey opined that 36 might be the average age for debut novelists, but average does not suggest it is the optimum. It means, by definition, that approximately half of the authors surveyed had their debuts published at 37 or older. After all Tolkien was 45 when his debuted novel, The Hobbit. Richard Adams, celebrated author of Watership Down, began his career at 53.
Debuting Later Than Average
So, what about authors who debut their novels even later? Are they to be dismissed? What about all their knowledge, experience, the words, the energy and confidence, we have acquired in three quarter of a century? Is it too late to use them, to put them down on paper? Should I have tried harder, found the time, earlier, in middle age? It wasn’t that I had not always wanted to tell stories.
I used to make up stories that ran on for days, to entertain my younger brothers. Later I wrote stories and short plays for my children and godchildren, for my nieces and nephews. I even took my stories to the children’s primary school and read to them. I wrote, many short stories, and poems but I certainly did not think that I could ever write and publish a whole novel Writing was just an enjoyable hobby, not my profession. Instead, I went to Drama College and trained to be an actress and a teacher.
Why I Waited
For a long time I put my children first, then my career. In my fifties, however, I decided to go back into education and that was when, without realising it at first, I started on the long journey towards my debut novel. During my Open University course, I took a Creative Writing module and was surprised and encouraged by the positive comments from my tutor after my first assignment. This led to me doing my MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. It was during that course that the idea for my novel, Breaking the Maafa Chain was born. I wanted to write about something that connected me to the West African country I had grown up in. I decided to write a story based on the real-life Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a slave who became a princess and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter for my thesis.
It took a lot of persuasion for me to send the first 20,000 words to a competition (I had only written forty pages of my novel then). I was thrilled and amazed when it got shortlisted and I even had an agent interested in the manuscript but at that time. I did not know then that it would take me over six years to finish it and by then the agent was no longer interested. Of course, there were setbacks on the way. I had so much on my hands. A couple of family tragedies meant I became the main carer to my husband and son while still teaching full time. I stopped writing and my novel remained unfinished, pushed on to the back burner. The novel was always there though, and I told myself that I could always come back to it. I just did not know when for I was already in my late sixties.
Other Successful Older Writers
That there are some well-known authors who did not publish their debut novel until they were past seventy gave me hope. Mary Wesley, author of ‘Jumping the Queue’ (age 70), Anne Youngson, author of ‘Meet Me at the Museum’ (age 71), Norma MacMaster, author of ‘Silence Under a Stone’ (age 72) and one the oldest debut novelist is Lorna Page whose first novel, A Dangerous Weakness, was published when she was ninety-three years old.
Recently The Writers Bureau, the UK’s largest writing college, found that 11% of their students are of retirement age. But they also discovered that this age group has a better than average chance of finding success as writers.
Toni Morrison says, if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. And there came a time when I wanted to finish my novel because there was this story I wanted to read. So, what if I was much older than thirty-six, it just meant that I have valuable perspective.
Put Time Into Writing
Some novels take time to write. You can’t hurry a novel that needs to be slow-cooked, I guess. I started to get up early to write or staying late into the night, snatching a few minutes here, an odd half an hour, until it was finished. With all that was going on around me writing became my salvation. The process of writing was cathartic for me, because when you write you are never alone or lonely. I could lose myself into that other world of my making, a place where I was in control.
Then came the journey towards publication. This was difficult with many rejections. I was almost beginning to feel that maybe it was not meant to be when I sent my manuscript to Jacaranda Publishers. They accepted it and there it was at seventy-two, my debut novel, Breaking the Maafa Chain is published.
I believe it’s never too late to start writing. If you’ve got an idea that hasn’t been told, a style that hasn’t been read and the determination to take those things and carve them into something that people want, then you can write and publish your debut novel at any age.
So here I am, a published debut author in my seventies. I am not going to let age define me.
More From Anni Domingo:
Breaking The Maafa Chain by Anni Domingo is published by Jacaranda Books and is available to buy now.
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