I sold my first novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, on the crest of sixty. Now sixty-three, I’m looking forward to the release of my next novel, The Precious Jules. I had completed a draft of my first novel years earlier, but it wasn’t until my mid-fifties that I formulated a plan that would see my novels come to fruition.

Shawn Rocher, The Precious Jules

Shawn Rocher, The Precious Jules

I had convinced myself that writing was a pleasurable compulsion, and it didn’t really matter if my novels ever made it to print. I was writing for me. Breaking into publishing was a pipe dream I kept to myself. Every time a voice in my head said reach for the stars, I reminded myself that I am indeed very short. Fear of failure is certainly the biggest hurdle for those breaking into publishing. There’s no way around self-doubt. We ask ourselves—is my book good enough? Am I good enough? Will anyone read it? At the crux of these questions is the one we dare not say aloud—am I worthy?  Truth is, you can ask the universe if you are worthy of this thing you want, but it’s not going to answer you. The only voice you will hear is your own.

Step 1:

Once you commit to getting that book sold, your journey begins. All the self-doubt, the imposter syndrome, the fears, are still going to be there, hanging on your shoulders, whispering in your ear that this might never happen. But we older writers have enough life experience to know that the simple adage—the surest way to fail is not to try—is actually a truism. Commit to your goal and make a plan to get there. 

Step 2:

This writing thing is not a gift—it’s a craft. And a craft must be honed. If I was going to put forth my best work, my best effort, I was going to have to find a way to apprentice. In my case that meant applying to a graduate writing program. Sure, going back to school in my fifties was terrifying. But I wasn’t alone. You would be surprised by how many older writers are flooding writing programs in pursuit of their dreams. Not everyone can drop everything and go back to school, but workshops and writing classes abound. Whether they’re in the hallowed halls of a fine university or a rec room at the Y, there are classes. The point is to immerse yourself in a learning community that will nurture your talent and foster your growth as a writer. Learn from the masters.

Step 3:

My classes allowed me to immerse myself in a community of writers--both professors and classmates--who were all deeply invested in the same thing I was—how best to tell a story. Outside of classes I attended readings and workshops, followed authors and editors I admired on social media, and invited those who came into my circle to become my friends. As a naïve younger writer, I once believed the stereotypes that all writers were loners, perhaps even anti-social, troubled, and cantankerous. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, writers are among the most generous people I’ve ever met. They understand that creating is also done by sharing ideas, critiques, and comradery with fellow writers. We buoy one another. Besides, writers are quirky and fun. Make friends. 

Step 4:

I’ve always read voraciously but being a consumer of novels is not enough to make a writer. Now, when I am wowed by a passage, I go back and try to find the magic on the page. Just how did the writer do that? How did they arrange words on the page to make me so sad, so happy, so shocked, so startled, so frustrated? Why do I feel helpless, hopeless, gutted? Reading like a writer means taking the work apart to study the mechanics. It also means studying what isn’t working on the page. If a passage should have horrified you and didn’t, ask yourself why the writer failed to move you. Read like a writer.

Step 5:

Networking is the best way to find your footing in the literary world. It requires being a good literary citizen. In the classroom that means providing insightful and thoughtful critiques to other writers in your workshopping groups. Outside of the classroom it can mean working within the literary community to facilitate local events, volunteering or reading for a literary journal, showing up at signings and readings, and writing reviews for worthy authors. Mostly it means supporting other writers in a positive way, including the lesser known ones whose work you admire. Networking can open doors, but only if we are thoughtful about how we reciprocate.  Get involved and be generous

Step 6:

The statistics are dismal, and they’re dream killers: how many queries does a writer have to send out to get an agent, how many submissions will my agent have to make to publishing houses in order to get me a book deal, how many novels get through acquisitions, what percentage of writers actually sell their book? You don’t want to know the answers to these questions. They will crush you. Know that you will send out multiple queries and multiple submissions. But remember, if you have followed your plan and pushed past your fears—it only takes one yes!

Shawn Nocher (pronounced No-Shay) is a mentee of Michael Glaser, Elise Levine, William Black, and Richard Bausch. Shawn Nocher's writing has appeared in Newsweek, Electric Literature, Writer’s Digest, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and Glimmer Train. She graduated with an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins and is currently teaching in their graduate program. A Hand To Hold In Deep Water, her debut novel published in 2021, and her second novel, The Precious Jules, will be published by Blackstone in June 2022.