The following blog comes from William Wells, whose story needs no further introduction or explanation.
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“Mozart began composing at age three. Terence Tao scored 760 out of 800 on the math portion of the SAT exam when he was nine, received his PhD from Princeton at 21, and was appointed a full professor at UCLA at 24. Picasso displayed extraordinary artistic ability in his childhood. Bobby Fischer was a chess grandmaster at 15. Saul Kripke, the noted philosopher and logician, taught himself ancient Hebrew at the age of 6, read the complete works of Shakespeare by 9, and mastered the works of Descartes and complex mathematical problems before finishing elementary school.
“The Permanent Press published my first novel, Ride Away Home, in August 2014, when I was 68. The cutoff age for child prodigy is ten. Even so, waiting 58 more years to get into print does seem a bit tardy. However, blooming late is not unique. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, when she was 64. Grandma Moses started painting in her 70s. Nola Ochs made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest college student, receiving her bachelor's degree from Fort Hayes State University in Kansas when she was 95, and then starting on her Master's degree.
“I tried writing novels when I was younger. The first attempt, while reporting for the New Haven Register, was—of course—a coming-of-age novel, with The Catcher in the Rye in mind. Fifty pages in, I knew it was going nowhere. Over the next years, through my 20s and into my 30s, more stories were started and abandoned. I stayed busy with other things: serving in the Navy, being a top 40 disk jockey, a newspaper reporter, writing speeches for the governor of Michigan, writing a syndicated cartoon, and founding and running a custom publishing company. My wife Mary and I raised two sons.
“Of course, I could have made time for writing fiction. Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent on the commuter train on his way to and from his job as a trial lawyer in Chicago. Best-selling crime fiction author John Sandford started out working as a newspaper reporter in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and wrote books at night. Elmore Leonard's day job was writing copy for a Detroit ad agency. James Patterson did the same in New York. For whatever reason, I didn't do that.
“Finally, at 64, I made a New Year's Resolution that didn't have to do with diet and exercise: I would approach writing the way I did with my other endeavors, by treating it as a full-time job. By the end of that year, if I hadn't written something I liked, whether or not it was published, I would stop thinking of myself as a writer. I'd have to accept the fact that "author" would not appear in the first paragraph of my obit.
“I began studying the process by reading interviews with prominent writers and books about writing fiction. I looked up what literary agents and editors had to say about what it took to make a good book and get it published. I reread novels I liked and took notes on why I liked them, and I studied best-seller lists to try to figure out what was working in the marketplace (keeping in mind the dictum that you should write the book you want to read, without regard to what is popular at the moment).
“I discovered that I didn't know a lot about how to write a good novel. What I learned was:
1. The purpose of a first draft is to finish it. Then you have something to work with. Don't worry if it isn't good because it won't be. Hemingway said, inelegantly, "The first draft of anything is shit." Anne Tyler said, "I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them—without any thought about publication and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside." I was comparing my first drafts to the finished work of the world's best authors. That was like taking one violin lesson and then auditioning for Julliard. Rookie mistake, one of many.
2. John Sandford was asked in an interview why so many other newspaper reporters who try to write novels fail. He said he thinks it is because it is difficult to make the transition from a newspaper-length article to the long form of a novel. There is no rule about how long a novel must be to be taken seriously, but clearly it is longer than an article about a meeting of the Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Zoning Board of Appeals, which was part of my beat while working for the New Haven Register. You have to change from sprinter to marathon runner. That was, in fact, the biggest challenge for me. I'd get fifty pages in and feel that I’d never make it to that distant finish line. But the dictum about just finishing that first draft got me through.
3. It’s all in the rewriting. Draft after draft until you are satisfied that it can't be any better. And then do another and another. Early on, you grow tired of the characters and bored by the story, and you just want to put the manuscript in the mail to your editor. But you can't.
4. Understand that you will never be satisfied with a manuscript. But at some point specified in your contract the publisher can start charging you for changes, so you stop.
5. Don't wait for inspiration. Just show up at the keyboard and get on with it. In my other jobs, I didn't ask myself every morning if I felt inspired enough to go to the office that day.
6. What works is the same as with any other undertaking: nothing gets good without consistent, long-term effort. In one of his books, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study that identified the fact that you have to practice for a minimum of two thousand hours to achieve excellence in anything, be it a tennis or heart surgery. No one just shows up and is world-class—with the possible exception of those child prodigies.
“I'm nearing 70. I've finished three books, so far. My first was a literary novel, Ride Away Home. An editor told me about The Permanent Press, and the book found a home. The next was a psychological thriller called Face of the Devil. Dagger Books will publish it this summer. The Permanent Press will publish Detective Fiction, my take on the crime fiction genre, in 2016. I'm now at work on a sequel.
“I've found that the most difficult issue to deal with when writing books at any age is that, in order to replicate a version of real life on the page, you have to shut yourself up alone in a room and miss what's going on outside. This becomes more of a problem as you approach an age when you are no longer buying green bananas. That is the theme of one of my favorite poems, The Circus Animals' Desertion by Yeats. Toward the end of his life, Yeats expressed a measure of regret at having spent so much time on his art instead of experiencing life in the street: ‘Players and painted stage took all my love/and not those things that they were emblems of.’
“My oldest son Adam is in the commercial real estate business. He also paints, plays guitar, and studies philosophy and world religions. I was talking to him about that dilemma. At my age, I said, instead of sitting for hours at the keyboard, burning the days, I could be out playing golf or trolling for tarpon in the Gulf or drinking daiquiris at Sloppy Joe's in Key West.
"So why not just stop writing and do those things? Adam asked. I said that when I don't put in my time writing, I feel an uneasiness, a vague malaise. So you write because you have to, he said. ‘Yes," I answered. ‘Then you're an artist,’ he said.”
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I hope you will post your comments below and feel free to contact Bill Wells directly at email@example.com
NEXT WEEK we’ll be publishing a guest blog written by Stephen Campbell, who is the host of the podcasts: The Author Biz, a weekly podcast focused on the business of being an author, and CrimeFiction.FM, a three times a week show focused on the crime genre. Be sure to tune in as Steve’s blog raises the question “Are small publishers the new curators of remarkable genre fiction?”