Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The "Write" Age

by Sarah Sullivan

Two years ago when I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference, I sat with an agent and dazzled her with my novel idea. She liked it (or so she said) but cautioned me against having a heroine who was “older” by which she meant, brace yourself dear readers, over the age of 35! Needless to say, this was a shock and affront to my 44 year old ears. Politely ignoring the fact that I was picking my chin up off the floor she continued, explaining that young adult fiction is where it’s at today because people age 10 to 100 will read it, which translates into big bucks for the publishing houses. I, myself, blame J.K. Rowling for introducing this trend because, as far as I know, my mother was not borrowing my Nancy Drew Mysteries or Madeleine L’Engle books when I was a teen, but I digress. 

Now, my heroine is actually pretty far over 35 (more like 55) which in my (obviously erroneous) opinion makes her so much more interesting. After all, a lot can happen to a person in a half a century. Over the years, life’s steady tides wash over us again and again contouring our minds and hearts and souls molding them into shapes very different from their original cast. Life’s roiling waters give some of us far more interesting aspects while other’s are ground to dust. Life has made my main character wise, compassionate, perceptive and just a little sad. 

Fortunately for me, said heroine has a grown son who has experienced his fair share of hardship as well. The subplot explores his struggle to deal with his own misfortunes and his journey to become either an exotic stone or an inconsequential ocean pebble. Still, he was never meant to be the main character and, yet, I find myself flushing out his part including the addition of a girlfriend just so I can appeal to the twenty something crowd. 

So, herein lies my dilemma. Do I write the story I want to write knowing that perhaps no one, other than me, wants to read about my graying age-spotted heroine or do I acquiesce to the tenor of the time and write young?


What's your opinion about the age of characters in fiction?

11 comments:

RichardK said...

I don't understand this ageism in the world of writing. Back in the Day, plenty of protagonists were older folks. Sherlock Holmes and Watson definitely seemed over the age of 35. I guess you need to be an established author to create older characters like Jesse Stone and Temperance Brennan (the book version, not the TV version). My next main characters are all going to be in their 90s and complain about their prostates. I predict a hit.

Sarah Sullivan said...

I agree Rich! Throw in a little sciatica and arthritis and I will love that book!

John Paul McKinney said...

Are you kidding me? The agent obviously isn't familiar with Melville (Moby Dick), Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie), James Hilton (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), almost anything by Francois Mauriac, and on and on. That advice is as silly as the notion that YA novels have to have adolescent protagonists. Since when? Think about the books you read in high school. I suspect the agent was young. I think adults are interesting and the elderly even more so :). So...in answer to your question, I say go with your passion. "If you write it, they will come." I don't think any of us is going to write a good book about something that somebody else tells us will sell.

Sarah Sullivan said...

That's great advice John, Thank you. And you're right. The agent was young.

Kerrie said...

Write the book you want to write.

Susan Vittitow Mark said...

I interviewed a writer who tried to chase the market, and it did not end well. She wasn't happy with the end result and the book fell flat and didn't sell. I suspect that when your heart's not in it, the passion in the writing suffered. When she returned to writing the books she wanted to read, she was much happier.

Keep in mind that C.J. Box was told repeatedly that his first book was too regional to sell. We all know how badly THAT one flopped. ;-)

I've got an embryonic story going, and my main character is most definitely over 35. It's essential to the story, and I love this character. I'm running with it.

Susan Vittitow Mark said...

Suffers, suffers.... not suffered. Oops.

Lynn said...

Writing by committee tends to result in bad writing, in my humble opinion. No matter who is on the committee.

abbiescorner said...

It's too bad the fiction market is what it is. Being almost 53, I like books with older heroines, but those seem to be few and far between. There needs to be more of a market for such books.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Sarah, I can only tell you that I my Sylvia and Willie mysteries featured older characters and no agents were interested. I found a traditional publisher that markets mostly to libraries, received good online reviews but none at all from the big four. My sales were baerly modest.

As a result, I dropped the series for now and wrote a suspense novel with younger characters -- it will be out in November, again from Five Star, so we'll see how that goes.

Shirley Drew said...

Sarah,
I agree with the previous comments. Look at the success of books like the Miss Marple series! I have a friend who's an English professor and we always joke that we're going to start writing a continuing series about two college professors in their 50's who solve crimes. We're thinking "The Cranky Crones" sounds good...

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