Saturday, October 24, 2015

It's never too late: Part I

HALLIE EPHRON: “It’s Never Too Late” is the headline on the November/December issue of Writers Digest Magazine. That got me thinking about the many writers I know who didn’t start writing fiction until their 40s or even their 50s, when many people are thinking of retiring, and have gone on to have terrific success.

How did they do it?

Today starts a 2-part piece in which authors who started late share how they did it.

  • Annamaria Alfieri
  • Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib
  • Jane Cleland
  • Sheila Connolly
  • Hallie Ephron
  • Sara J. Henry
  • Edith Maxwell
  • Barbara Ross
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan 
Here are the questions everyone answered:
  • When did you start writing?
  • What career did you have before you published your first crime novel?
  • Why did you start writing fiction?
  • How long did it take from when you started writing fiction to seeing your first book published?
  • Did you take writing classes or complete an MFA program and did that help?
  • Were you in a writing group and/or hire an independent editor to work with you on your first published book?
  • If you could do it over, what would you do differently?

Last published book: STRANGE GODS, Minotaur Books  
Crime novels published to date: 4
Before writing: Management training consultant, CEO of small marketing company, non-fiction author
Started writing: 1950
Why started: I knew when I was nine that I wanted to write stories.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: I started writing fiction with an eye to publication in the late 80's.  I had a book I thought was publishable in 1999.  I tried to get an agent to represent it for eight years.  In the end, I had to write a fifth nonfiction book to get and agent to read CITY OF SILVER.  When it finally went out to potential publishers, it sold to St. Martin’s Minotaur in four days.  It came out in 2009 and earned starred reviews and love letters from critics.  I say this because I want people to know that rejections by potential agents do NOT mean the book is not worthy.
Classes, MFA: I studied creative writing in college, but not afterwards.
Writing group, independent editor:  I did join two writing groups, and I think they helped me develop my skills.  I did not employ an editor, but I did polish and polish and polish my own manuscript.  I still do that.
Do over: I am so delighted that I am getting published that I don’t look back.  And I often think that I am better prepared now to write about the human condition.  I don’t think I would have been a very insightful writer had I tried to write fiction seriously when I was a young woman.  

Crime novels published to date: 14
Before writing: I worked in a private practice as a clinical psychologist.
Started writing: The year it entered my mind, 1998
Why started: I can only explain that it was a midlife crisis related to many hours of bad golf. (What could I make of all that wasted time?)
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: 4 years
Classes, MFA: I took a lot of local classes on all kinds of writing. Yes it absolutely helped--I had no clue how to write fiction.
Writing group, independent editor: Yes definitely to a writing group. Still work with them! I finally hired an independent editor for books 3 to 7. It was so helpful--a private tutorial on character, plot, setting, and words, but all tailored to me!
Do over: I think this was a process that had to unspool, so not sure it could have been different.

Latest book: ORNAMENTS OF DEATH, Minotaur Books
Crime novels published to date: 10
Before writing: Corporate trainer specializing in business communications
Started writing: I’ve always been a writer. I started writing my “Josie” mysteries in 2003. I wrote my first mystery (now on the shelf) in 1998. (I started one in 1984, but didn’t get far.)
Classes, MFA: Only after I was published. Both classes and the MFA helped.
Why started: My mother was a writer. When I was a kid, I thought that’s what all women did.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: 21 years.
Writing group, independent editor: No to the writing group. Yes to independent editors.
Do over: Learn more about craft earlier in my career.

Latest book: NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT, HarperCollins
Crime novels published to date: 9
Started writing: 1990
Before writing: Taught elementary school, college, wrote training materials for high-tech companies, had my own marketing copywriting business
Why started: I ran out of excuses not to (kids were out of the house, an empty room could be my office…)
How long from start to publishing first book: 10 years
Classes, MFA: for 3 semesters I took a fiction class with the great Arthur Edelstein and learned to write scenes and harness viewpoint
Writing group independent editor: Yes and yes, though I no longer use either
Do over: Not be so aggrieved by early rejections; they were telling me what I needed to hear.

Latest book: A GALA EVENT, Berkley
Crime novels published to date: 26 (including the first three under the pen name Sarah Atwell)
Before writing: Professor of art history, municipal investment banker, non-profit fundraiser, genealogist-for-hire (and I've used all of them in my books)
Started writing: 2001
Why started: I'd always been a reader, and I finally decided in 2001 (after 9/11) that it was time to try writing.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: Started writing 2001, signed with an agent in 2006, and first book appeared in 2008 (as Sarah Atwell; the first under my own name came out later the same year.)
Classes, MFA: No, although I did join RWA and SinC.
Writing group, independent editor: I was part of a writing group for a while when I began writing, but we didn't last--I forget when it fell apart
Do over: Actually, nothing. I tried writing much earlier (I finished three pages) and realized I had nothing to say. It was only when the universe presented me with a chunk of free time (after I was let go from one job) and a clean quiet place to work (I was house-sitting for someone, and the place came with a cleaning lady) that I decided to get serious and dig in. After that I couldn't stop myself.

HALLIE: Tune in tomorrow to hear from Sara J. Henry, Edith Maxwell, Barbara Ross, and Hank Phillippi Ryan

And in the meanwhile: What's the hardest thing you ever tried to learn to do and how long did it take you?


  1. So interesting, and congratulations to all the ladies on their writing success . . . .

  2. I love hearing all these stories, and am honored to be on the schedule tomorrow!

  3. So many of you were my inspiration and provided me with encouragement to hang on and not worry about when "it" might happen. I had been writing "book length"novels since 1994 after I turned a stint on my local planning board into a municipal murder mystery. Four books and twenty years later, I signed the contract for my first book the month I turned 65! Talk about a new lease on life.

  4. Waving, Michele! I still remember the first piece of yours that I read. It was terrific, even then.

  5. I think patience is the hardest thing to learn. Very few first attempts sell on the first try. I got serious in 1976 after my teaching contract was not renewed. I was 29. None of the first five novels I wrote were ever published. With good reason. I had to learn my craft, and in those days there was no Sisters in Crime. I don't think MWA was around yet, either, certainly not as it is today. I knew no other writers and had only The Writer and Writers Digest to rely on for advice. Eight years later I was published in nonfiction and then, finally, in 1985, my first mystery, for ages 8-12. Right now I'm working on what will be my 55th traditionally published book.


  6. I'm glad to see there are other late bloomers and I'm not alone!

  7. This is fascinating. I really love the "no regrets" theme--I do thank that's instructive! ANd so wonderful, from any place in the writing spectrum, to see we're to alone.

    And look it you now, Kathy Lynn Emerson! (Kathy will be here Wednesday with her newest!)

    Yup, Michele, you were instantly recognizable as talented. xoxoo I remember it well..

  8. Kathy, you are our "poster child"! And your experience is a great example of how you never know when something "bad" happens (like you lose a job), it could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

    Joyce, you are definitely not alone!

  9. These are interesting tales. I can't wait to hear more tomorrow. I'm a late bloomer myself, but I'm a reader, not a writer!

  10. Exactly, Hallie. That's when I was able to resume writing my first novel - when I was laid off a job. Well, after I wrote a short story of murderous revenge after layoff...called "Reduction in Force." ;^)

  11. Bouchercon treasure moment
    I was walking through the lobby of the Sheraton at Bouchercon Raleigh when this lovely woman stopped me and said, "Isn't it wonderful how many people are sitting here reading." Of course, I agreed, and what followed was one of the most inspirational conversations I've had ever. Annamaria Alfieri listened as I told her that I had wanted to write as a child, but it was rather late in the day now. Then, she told me to look into her eyes and told me her story of when she first was published and what age she now was. If you've ever had one of those encounters where the room or surrounding area just drops away and there is only you and the other person, then you'll know how that moment was for me, there with Annamaria. We somehow kept missing each other the rest of the time, but a special connection was made, and we will have more conversations in the future, dear Annamaria.

    I am no longer amazed at the generosity of authors, especially mystery/crime authors, to share their experiences and advice on writing. I'm especially interested to hear about your pursuit of writing courses, workshops, and writing groups. I've always thought that you needed to pretty much know how to write fiction to take a course in writing it. I'm now thinking I might be wrong about that? Whatever course you amazing authors have taken, it has certainly paid off (I mean that in writing well, although the money must surely follow).

    Oh, and Shelia Connolly, although we only briefly met in Raleigh, I must tell you that you have one of the sweetest, brightest smiles that was such a pleasure to see.

  12. Hallie, what a great post. And so inspiring. I was a late starter, too, so fascinating to hear other people's stories. Do you think this happens as often with male writers?

  13. I wrote MR. CHURCHILL because I was layer off from my job as a magazine editor! Also, don't you think a lot of debut authors are older? I winder if it has something with getting the kids off to college?

  14. What inspiring stories you all have. And it gives me heart. I'm 64, and still feel as though I have some fiction to share with the world. Hallie and Hank have both encouraged me, along with other writers, but so far I'm still at sea.

    However, I have accomplished one thing in my mid-50's that I never dreamed I'd do, learn to ride a horse, after a lifetime of successfully avoiding mounting one. And not just ride, but also to learn some basic dressage moves. If you grew up riding you probably only dimly remember, if at all, the utter thrill of figuring out how to control an animal that weighs nearly ten times as much as you do.

  15. Anonymous, hope you find a little boat to bring you to shore! My hat's off to you learning to ride a horse in middle age. I'm scared to death of them--they are so big!

    Kathy Lynn--55! Wow is all I can say!

    And Michele, you epitomize patience and persistence--so important to a writer. Congrats!

  16. So many other people got in print late like I did. No regrets except I won't live long enough to do an entire alphabet! Fun post - can't wait to read tomorrow's.