We get novelists of all ages taking part in our creative writing courses. But what is the best time to write a novel? It’s a question we’re asked all the time. Is it when you’re young and brimming with energy and youthful zeal? Is it when you have three quarters of a century’s wisdom under your belt, and you can command your words with well-earned confidence? Or is it somewhere in the middle, a mid-life literary crisis? Well let’s answer that question once and for all: the best time to write a novel is after you’ve had the idea but before it gets published. It’s got nothing to do with how old you are – nothing at all.
There is a myth, however, that career novelists are young, spirited folks who, like anyone else, start their careers in their twenties and go from strength to strength. The myth has a surprisingly contradictory origin: young authors are extraordinary. And, being extraordinary, people like to make a fuss over how extraordinary they are. You can find articles and lists all over the internet of authors who debuted in their teens, or writers who were piling in the prizes before they were 30. So why don’t you see lists of authors who debuted in their thirties and forties? Because most authors debut in their thirties and forties. And that list would be very long, and very unremarkable.
But, in the name of age-equality – and to set your mind at rest, however old you are – here’s a selection of authors who published their first novel at all stages of life.
At 19 years old, Mary Shelley penned her seminal work Frankenstein, and in doing so, not only gifted the world a classic, but invented a genre. Similarly, child genius Arthur Rimbaud is credited with heavily influencing modern art and literature, and he hit his creative peak at about 17. But those were the 1800s – and, when life expectancy was about 35, 17 was the year of your prime and 19 was positively elderly. Do we still have teen authors these days? The answer is yes, we do, enough to have their own Wikipedia page. BBC presenter Bidisha published her first novel at 18, and Christopher Paolini started writing his bestselling Eragon at 15 and had it published at 19. Then there’s Catherine Webb, who had not one but four YA novels published before she was 20. But if you’re reading this and growing disheartened, read on, we’re just getting started.
Bret Easton Ellis, the author best known for writing American Psycho, wrote his debut novel Less Than Zero at the tender age of 21. Zadie Smith had White Teeth published when she was 25, and Eleanor Catton became the youngest person to ever win the Man Booker prize at 28 with The Luminaries. The twenties are an excellent time to get started on your writing career, with unbridled imagination and energy waiting to be channeled, but writing debuts this side of 30 are still a minority. An author’s writing style is less like a muscle that needs to be exercised to its peak and more like a tree that strengthens with time.
John le Carré wrote Call for the Dead at 30, launching an extensive and illustrious career that cemented him as one of the greatest writers of espionage fiction in history. He has scarcely put the pen down since. His most recent work, A Delicate Truth, was published in 2013, written at the age of 81. This is more the sort of age you’d expect for a debut novel, possibly even a little on the young side (30, that is, not 81). This study of professionally published novelists found the average age of first publication to be 36 years. Given that many novels take many years to perfect, it stands to reason that late twenties, early thirties are prime time for putting in those writing hours. Harper Lee, for example, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird at 31 and saw it published at 34. Looking to a more contemporary scene, Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl shot to global fame, published her first novel, Sharp Objects at the age of 35.
Don’t let averages fool you: 36 is the average age, not the optimum. And being the average that means that, by definition, approximately half of the authors surveyed had their debuts published at 37 or older. Given the scope of his career, I was surprised to learn that Tolkien’s debut novel, The Hobbit, was published when he was 45, but it just goes to show that 45 is by no means ‘too late’ to start a career in the discipline you love. Author and former Curtis Brown Creative student Antonia Honeywell is an adherent to this principle. She founded The Prime Writers, a group of writers united by the fact that they all debuted after the age of 40. To take one example, SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep hit the shelves when Watson was 40, went on to sell in over 40 languages, and became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.
In 1971, Charles Bukowski began his career as a novelist with Post Office. He was 51 years old. So was the Marquis de Sade when his controversial work Justine was published. Richard Adams, legendary author of Watership Down, began his career at 53. Other writers might debut earlier but find success 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.
Some novels take time to write. Just as you shouldn’t pan-fry brisket (trust me, I’ve tried), you can’t hurry a novel that needs to be slow-cooked. Decorated marine Karl Marlantes’s incredibly powerful novel Matterhorn, published in 2009 and set during the Vietnam war, slow-cooked for 33 years. The book was not released until its author was in his sixties. But that doesn’t mean that if you haven’t started already, you can’t. If there’s one thing a novel needs then it’s time – this is a marathon, not a sprint – and many people in their sixties find the need to keep their hands occupied once they retire. Some take up painting, some gardening, some write the book they’ve had in them their entire lives.
Mary Wesley proves not only that it’s never too late to start your career, but also that it’s never too late to change it. Having written three novels for children, Wesley had a change of heart and, at 71 years of age, had her first novel for adults published – Jumping the Queue in 1983.
Here’s the one factoid you should take away from this blog: it’s not too late. 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 a novel. And, if you’ve got two out of three, why not consider a creative-writing course to bridge the gap between ‘almost there’ and ‘there‘?
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).