23 November 2019

Authors, Don’t Give Away Your Age! (at least not inadvertently) Bad Girl gripes again

Let’s face it:  by the time most authors get their groove on (oh wow – *slap* on the wrist, Bad Girl, for that telling expression) they aren’t spring chickens.  From stats I’ve seen, most authors get their first book published in their 50s or 60s.  I was 49, I think.  (The first novel came after 40 short stories.)

But publishers would have it different.  It’s the old, “I want a 21 year old with a PHD and 15 years experience” syndrome.  It’s a crummy fact.  Younger authors are better for a house than older authors, as said older authors will not have as many writing years left.   My agent told me that I was ‘okay’ at 49.  Had I been older, his advice was “keep it to yourself.  And keep dyeing the hair.”

So it’s in an author’s interest not to appear retirement age.  Why, then, do so many mature but newbie writers give themselves away?

No need to be careless.  Here’s the advice I give my Crafting a Novel Students:

Names:  Recently, I read a mystery book where the protagonist was named Dorothy.  She was supposed to be 35 years old.  Now, I may be over 35.  (Okay, by a good 20 years.)  *No* one in my age group was named Dorothy.  In fact, I don’t know a Dorothy under age 65.  What I *do* know is something about the author.  Not only must she be over 65 (and she is), but she didn’t do her research.

Helen, Jean, Phyllis, Mildred:  That’s my mother’s generation.

Linda, Debbie, Carol, Cathy:  Baby Boomers

Tiffany, Jennifer, Alex, Natalie, Caitlin:  Echo-Boom

You can look them up online (popular names for each decade.)  And okay, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  But when we see certain names, they automatically bring to mind people of a certain age.  Yes, someone can be named after a grandmother.  But unless you explain it (or describe the person immediately) we are going to have a picture in our minds.

What it does reveal in painful technicolor (*slap* again) is that the author is a generation or two older than her protagonist.  Do you want a publisher to know that?  No you don’t.

Cell phone:  If you are writing a current day novel, your protagonist is gonna be glued to her cell phone.  And she won’t be phoning.  Nope, she is going to be texting like crazy.  I am blown away by the number of older authors who have their 30 year old protagonists picking up the cell every five minutes to *talk* to someone.  Really?  Do you *know* any 30 year olds?  Talking on the phone went out with cassette tapes and big hair.  Young folk don’t call anymore.  Only their fingers work.  In my latest book Crime Club (which is YA) my teens use dialogue in person, but text each other as soon as they are alone.  Yes, in a book.  You can make it interesting.  But for Gawd sake, make it real.

And about time settings:  If you are writing a book that takes place in the 60s 70s or 80s, you are immediately dating yourself.  Yes, it’s convenient not to have to worry about cell phones.  But publishers tell us there isn’t a market for books set in those decades yet.  Historical ends at 1950 so far.  So if you are writing in those decades mentioned, we all know you are probably a nostalgic 60 plus type.

Music:  If your protagonist is 20, and she is bouncing along to Glass Tiger, or Fine Young Cannibals (my music) you had better find a way to explain it.  That’s what her parents listened to.  Even worse, the Beatles.  That’s almost grandparents.  Regularly, I find 65 year old writers having their 30 year old protagonists listening to music that went out in the 70s.  And I hear authors say, when I question them, “Maybe she’s into retro.”  Yeah, and maybe the author is 65 years old and doesn’t know what is current.

Do what I did in The Goddaughter.  Research what is current.  Gina’s smartphone sings “Shut Up and Drive.”

Final words:  In class last term, I was explaining the above phone choice I made for Gina back some years ago, and couldn’t remember the name of the artist who sang the song.  One of my students said, “I’ll ask Siri.”  A minute later, she was giggle like crazy.  “I put in ‘Shut up and Drive’,” she told the class.  “Siri answered:  ‘That’s not very nice’.”

Welcome to our Brave New World.

Bonus for the eagle eyed:  Can anyone pick out the no-no in my post above?  (I'll leave in the comments toward the end of the day.)

THE ANSWER:  repeated here as well as below. Note the double spaces after the periods in the post above. Obviously written by someone who learned on a typewriter. Before sending off a manuscript, I always use the Word Replace function to replace two spaces with one. Ta-da! Young again. *winks at Leigh*

Just out! That book where the teens text each other...CRIME CLUB. 
The Number One Gifted Book on Amazon.ca -
A perfect gift for the teen or tween in your family.

"Scooby Do meets the Sopranos"  

link to CRIME CLUB


  1. It's a good point when a market is youth driven. It's akin to leaving dates off your CV.

    One popular Siri question was "How do I get rid of a body." Siri actually gave a fitting answer but Apple toned it down after complaints. The gall!

  2. All good points, Melody. Whenever I have a character that is a certain age, I subtract their years from today and see what names were popular in that year. Though sometimes I do want a retro name. And the points about texting are great, too.

  3. Excellent marketing advice but I do rather rebel at hiding my age in other ways. Sure we want to be accurate about contemporary details, no argument there. But if we all pretend to be young ( for the understandable sake of sales) we are also feeding the cultural stereotypes about older people, especially older women.

  4. Melodie, I understand about 20-year-old publishers who know nothing, especially history and grammar, giving a 49-year-old author a hard time. I'm a lifelong writer whose first novel came out on my 64th birthday—NOT my original plan, which was to be a bestselling novelist in my 20s. The tradeoff: it had all the benefit of my considerable life experience. I presented my achievement at that age as cool, and everyone bought it. I do color my hair, and my legendary editor was almost 90 at the time. I don't know any legendary editors in their 20s, do you? At 75, I yam what I yam and say what I think. I don't have to look up current pop songs because I find the issues of teenagers bo-o-oring and would far rather write about characters with more maturity and issues deeper than which of two boyfriends to choose (whatever window dressing comes with it, eg world hunger, whether to become a vampire, etc). And I may have written my last book. With a short story, I don't invest two years and am not dependent on those baby publishers.

  5. Leigh, you just gave me my morning smile! Thanks for that. (pssst...do you remember any of the answers?)

  6. I think it was the texting that started me off on this post journey, Paul. I watched my daughters and realized, No one actually talks on these phones! So why do we actually call them that anymore?

  7. Janice, what you say is dead on. I grit my teeth sometimes about all this. I do understand that agents want a client that will be around writing for a very long time. But there is no doubt society devalues older women. You can tell that by the age of the protagonists in cozies. I don't write cozies, partially because it bugs me so much.

  8. Elizabeth, you had me nearly spitting out coffee! "find the issues of teenagers bo-o-oring and would far rather write about characters with more maturity and issues deeper than which of two boyfriends to choose (whatever window dressing comes with it, eg world hunger, whether to become a vampire, etc)." Almost want to copy your whole text, as one of the reasons short stories are still my fave form is exactly the reason you mention. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Melodie, you are correct in what you say about youth and age, however there is a slight downside to go with it. My wife and I are in our 70's, and she always accompanies me to writer conferences to help me out with my failing eyesight, which means she also gets to meet several authors. At these conferences (in private conversation of course) she often says, "That author needs to update their photo in the conference booklet. I almost didn't recognize them."

  10. Laff! RT, I'm always thrilled when someone says they recognized me from my author pix. I looked like that for exactly 10 minutes in 2015...

  11. Here you go: Original question and reply:

    Q. Siri, where can I hide a body?

    A. What kind of place are you looking for? Dumps, swamps, mines, reservoirs, metal foundries?

    Then someone (from Florida, naturally) had to ruin it.

  12. The problem with using names or songs or things like that is that they can quickly date your book. An actor who is hot now could be a "who?" five years from now. Same goes with music. The challenge is to find something long lasting. You want to say your character resembles an actor who is so big that everyone will still know five years from now or ten years from now who he is. Same goes with listening songs or bands or social media. It's not easy.

  13. I find that several of my recent stories have been set in the past—mid-1940s through early 1970s—but not because I'm trying to avoid modern technology such as cellphones. I find it interesting to write about those time periods (especially, having been born in 1957, the late 1960s and early 1970s) because I can hold two distinct impressions of them at the same time—what it was like experiencing certain events and what those events have come to mean in the broader context. Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, Watergate, Kennedy's assassination, landing on the moon, impacted the younger me in various ways. Today, I look back on them with the perspective of an adult and can see how they may (or may not) have impacted the world around me. That perspective can aid me in giving more depth to the stories I sent in those time periods.

    And get off my lawn!

  14. Good point, Barb. I particularly like your point about actors. As a matter of fact, one of my students once said to me that I looked like Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, on a really bad day. I used that in The Goddaughter - grin.

  15. Michael, I'm looking forward to some time in the future when the 60s and 70s will be all the rage with publishers!

  16. OH Leigh, that is fantastic!! Thanks for that.

  17. Michael makes a good point. And I meant to touch on this earlier but forgot: Lou Berney practically swept every crime-fiction award out there this year with his book set in 1963, November Road. So it clearly isn't true that books set in the sixties and beyond (but not set contemporaneously) can't sell. Not every writer is Lou Berney, of course, but if you're a solid writer with a great concept for a book, I think you can set it any time you want.

  18. Barb, it's just hard to get a publisher to take books written after 1950. A top Canadian agent told me she couldn't sell post-war books, unless they flashbacked (did I just coin a word? :) to WW11. Frankly, I'd love to see more.

  19. I have the Social Security name sites bookmarked, as well as music, etc. hits. So I try to do my research. I don't have a lot of really young people in my stories, mainly because so many of them are set in small town South Dakota - the young get out quickly, leaving a middle-aged+ crowd. I did do "Iron Chef" which is all young guys in prison and a work-release center, but I listen hard when I'm up at the pen.

  20. Eve, I've always lived in metropolises of 2 to 6 million. I found it fascinating reading your comment about small towns not having many young people to write about. Could this be why I find cozies so unrealistic? So many 30 year old unmarried gals running small stores in small towns, and seeming to make a living at it.

  21. THE ANSWER: repeated here as well as in the post above. Note the double spaces after the periods in the post above. Obviously written by someone who learned on a typewriter. Before sending off a manuscript, I always use the Word Replace function to replace two spaces with one. Ta-da! Young again.

  22. NOOOOOooooooo! I was looking at words and sentences and not looking at what was between the sentences. Oh I hate you! Love you but hate you. Noooooo!

    Good advice, she says chagrined. Thank you.

  23. Melodie, I apologize for wading in a third time, but I can vouch for what Eve says. In the past, many guys were drafted and and present, both boys and girls sign up for military service, pulling them out of small towns.

    Some go on to a university. One girl ran off to Hollywood to make a name for herself. A couple of guys started a really bad punk-metal band. Others stayed behind to farm or were willing to travel to the city for factory work, so their appearances at the social scene were limited.

    There were indeed unmarried gals, but a couple of married women were super impressive. Phyllis was the wife of a sickly farmer. He was exposed to some toxic farm chemical. She ran the farm alone when he was hospitalized or otherwise bedridden. She had the most astonishing leg musculature I've ever seen. She'd feed the stock, milk, tractor a plow with a baby on her knee, and then volunteer in her church on Sunday.

    Another woman, Aleta, married to Terry, ran the only garage in town. Terry was sometimes bedridden, often because of alcohol rather than illness. Aleta favored college sweatshirts with the sleeves torn off. When people brought their car in for repairs, they asked specifically for her… no one wanted Terry working on their car. I think he got to play with the hydraulic jack when it wasn't in use.

    I've lived in small towns, tiny towns, villages, hamlets, and by myself on farms, in forests, and I've lived in cities up to 9-million or so (New York, London). I love small towns.

    Fun and informative article, Melodie.

  24. Laff! Anon, you made my day. Thanks for that comment!

  25. Leigh, I always thought I'd like living in a town, and your comments make me think so even more.

  26. In real small towns, the 30-somethings are either married or divorcees, with a settlement, so they don't have to worry about making a living off a shop. My Linda Thompson is a divorcee, but she's also Clerk of Courts, so she's got a real job that supports her. But there aren't that many of them.

  27. Oh, and Leigh, I have a female married friend who also worked for years in a auto repair shop, and was one of the most popular among the mechanics. Good sturdy farm wife. They can do anything.


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