In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty. Probably plenty of them.
I wrote my first novel at age 25. A few months before I turned 26, I had that first novel on submission to literary agents, and I was writing my second novel, my first YA called Happy Birthday to Me. I felt on top of the world. Thought for sure within the next few months big things would be happening. And although I knew even then that I might not actually have a book published for another 2–3 years, I was 100% certain I’d be published before I turned… gasp… 30. Everything was going to work out. Everything was going to be just fine.
Well, here I am now. A few months away from turning 34. No books traditionally published yet, no publishing contract yet, but things definitely are happening. I finally have an agent, finally have a novel on submission to editors (the 16th novel I’ve written), and nearly a decade since I wrote that first novel, I finally have a genuine shot at selling one of my books.
But let’s say I do sell this book in the next few months. Odds are, the earliest it would be published is late 2019, more likely 2020. If I’m lucky enough to have this novel published, I will be, at minimum, 35 years old when I have my first novel on bookshelves.
And you know what? That’s okay to me. Someone else, especially a person in his or her early 20s trying to make it as a novelist, might say that feels really, really old to have a first published novel. Like, really old.
But this is how I look at it. I would be sad, disappointed — mortified! — if the first or second book I wrote had been the one to be traditionally published. You know why? Because I wasn’t ready yet. My talent wasn’t there yet. My skill wasn’t honed. In the past eight years, I’ve had not only tons of writing experience, but I’ve earned two Masters degrees in English, one specifically in the art of Creative Writing, and my MFA thesis novel I just completed is night and day better than anything I’ve written. I’ve learned so, so much. And I feel more confident than ever now as a writer of fiction.
The truth is, getting an agent, getting published, will take longer for some of us. You occasionally hear about that young author who gets a six-figure publishing deal, and we all hang our heads in shame feeling sorry for ourselves. Stephen King was worried when his first few novels didn’t sell that he might never get a book published, and be a high school teacher for the next forty years with some unpublished manuscripts in the drawer he tinkers with from time to time. He was — get this — 26 when his first book Carrie was published. So he was only in his early 20s when he was genuinely worried about his publishing future.
On one side of the coin, there’s Veronica Roth, whose hit YA novel Divergent was published when she was just 22 years old.
On the other side is Raymond Chandler, who didn’t have his first book published until he was 51. And then there’s Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, whose debut The Nest didn’t come out until she was 55. I’ve even read stories about authors in their 80s and 90s who have their first book published.
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what age you become a published author. Whether it’s 25, 35, 45, or later. Because, at the end of the day, you will be published when it’s the right time for you. When your talent and skill matches the right book with the right agent and editor. There’s a lot of luck involved, that’s to be sure, but time to develop your craft will only benefit you in the long run.
I’m okay with not being published until 35 or later. And you should, too!