Another Word: On Being a Late Bloomer
I always wanted to be a writer. That’s not unique. Many writers have their destiny revealed in childhood. Like others with this particular itch, I read voraciously, and when I bought my first Asimov’s magazine at the age of sixteen—a moment embedded in my senses more vividly than my first kiss—I knew I had to be a science fiction writer.
But it took me more than thirty years to become one. And by that, I don’t mean I was thirty before I published my first fiction. I was forty-seven. By anyone’s measure, that’s late for a first publication.
Most of us have preconceived ideas about how a writer’s career should proceed, and we judge ourselves harshly if we don’t achieve the various benchmarks on time. I married an SF writer who hit her milestones at a pace most people would consider ideal. Alyx sold her first story in her early twenties, made her first professional sale later that decade, and her first book came out around forty. By the end of this year, well before she’s fifty, she’ll have five books out, three of them in hardcover, nearly forty stories, and two national awards.
As for me, I just got started last year. My first story came out in the February 2015 Clarkesworld.
You might expect that our home has been a hotbed of professional jealousy over the past twenty-eight years of marriage. It hasn’t. Not because we’re a magical lesbian unicorn couple (though we are) but because we’re very different artists. Alyx pursues writing the way a cheetah pursues an antelope—unblinking, single-minded, and utterly lacking in self-doubt. I always knew I could never, ever work like that. It’s just not the way my mind works. And for many years, I thought if that’s what it takes, I’ll never be a writer. And I hated myself for it.
I feel kind of dumb now. There’s never only one way of doing things, and I should have known that. I should have had the self-confidence to follow my own path. But Alyx’s laser focus is impressive, especially when you live with it, and most especially since I’ve been a big ball of self-doubt and self-recrimination for most of my life.
That’s not unique, either. Many people—certainly many artists—swim in self-doubt. It’s natural. It’s not even necessarily bad because it forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing. But self-doubt can be paralyzing, and at worst, it can make you quit before you even start.
That’s what I did. I saw the way one writer worked, knew I couldn’t do it the same way, so I used it as an excuse to not even try.
But not everyone is the same. There’s no official map to writing success, no freeway with clearly marked on-ramps. SF/F/H is filled with innovators, visionaries, rebels, and iconoclasts, and each one has found their own route. Some achieve success early in life, some later, some very late. The great James Tiptree, Jr., for example, started publishing in her early 50s, and Jack McDevitt in his 40s. A contemporary example is Martin L. Shoemaker, who was a finalist for this year’s Nebula with his terrific story “Today I am Paul,” and who began writing in his 40s. I could fill out the rest of this essay’s word count with further examples, but you get the point.
It’s never too late. And one person’s map to writing success is another person’s malfunctioning GPS, leading them over a cliff.
Many writers put a lot of pressure on themselves to start publishing as early as possible. It’s understandable. Even though it’s a solitary pursuit—maybe because it’s a solitary pursuit—being around other writers is an incandescent joy. One of the greatest thrills of writing is the opportunity to be one of the gang with writers we admire, who share our values, our passions, who speak the same language we do, who understand us. We want to be with our people.
Part of the reason Alyx and I moved across the continent from Vancouver to Toronto was to join the city’s terrific writing community. Many of us spend more money traveling to conventions and workshops than we actually make writing. The company of other writers is like catnip. Being able to count yourself among them is worth a lot of sacrifice.
Another reason we rush into publishing is false urgency. We constantly hear doomsday apocalypse warnings about the publishing industry, which creates pressure to get in before it’s too late. But it’s never too late. Yes, publishing is an industry in flux, but it always has been. It always will be.
When Alyx started publishing twenty-five years ago, the Internet was still in its hand-crank days. No publisher accepted electronic submissions, and except for those savvy enough to use IRC channels and bulletin boards, nobody had an online writing community. Market reports were via newsletters and magazines, and submitting a story meant sending it into oblivion for months. Contracts would come with acceptance letters in the mail, and then you’d have no further contact with the editor until the comp copies eventually arrived, months or years later. Sure, you could email your friends to announce the sale, but that would mean firing up the modem. Egad. You might as well have had to carve the message in stone.
I feel so lucky to be entering the SF community now, when the online writing ecosystem is incredibly rich. The last great holdout for hard copy submissions ended last year when C.C. Finlay took over as editor of F&SF. Up-to-the-moment market information is always at my fingertips, often with submission queue positions and accurate response times. When I announce a story acceptance on Twitter, I get a dozen congratulations within seconds, and hundreds within a few hours on Facebook. When I want to know the latest news from the writers I adore, or read the new story everyone’s excited about, I can do it anywhere.
But those are just technical advances. Other changes are more important. Online fiction is now not only accepted but is leading the field. Indie writers are slashing their own paths through unmapped professional terrain. We are making large steps toward a truly global audience with passionate pushes for inclusivity, like great new markets such as Mithila Review.
Twenty-five years ago, nobody could have predicted these huge changes. Nobody can say where we’ll be twenty-five years from now, but I’m convinced the future will be better and more exciting than we can possibly imagine.
So what about those thirty years I wasted in self-doubt?
I don’t think they were wasted, actually. In fact, I’d argue that the best thing a writer can do is delay publishing for as long as possible.
This isn’t an attractive argument; it’s not sexy. Nobody’s going to make any Top Thirty Under Thirty lists that way. And dammit, writing is difficult. It takes so much hard work and dedication. How long can a person go on working with nothing to show for it?
As long as you can.
Those thirty years didn’t just make me a writer. They made me a good writer. That paralyzing self-doubt morphed into a keen sense for quality in my own work. When I write something that stinks, I can usually smell it. I’ve been reading for more than forty years, so I have thousands of great books and stories banked for information and inspiration. And best of all, I have a lifetime’s worth of unplumbed material to draw on—I’ve seen the world in all its glory and ugliness.
About ten years ago, I realized that if I never gave writing an honest try, it would be the worst regret of my life. I tried NaNoWriMo, which forced me to set aside the self-doubt and just get the words down. I wrote two trunk novels cribbing plots from Shakespeare and characters from Austen. I worked in historical fiction, because though my true love was still SF/F/H, working in the genres I adored seemed beyond my reach. Then in 2013, I was laid off from a job I loved. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me that didn’t involve a funeral. My ego was utterly crushed. Writing was the only thing I had left. And in that crucible, that white-hot raging furnace of failure, I finally learned the skills I needed to become the writer I always hoped I could be.
Everyone feels like it’s too late. Writers in their twenties say they feel their opportunities are slipping away. Even writers with shelves of awards and mile-long bibliographies don’t feel like they’ve made it.
Success is a receding target. Having previously written and published good stories is no guarantee of being able to write another one. Every blank page is a new challenge. Starting a new book means learning to write all over again.
So don’t give up. Don’t quit. It’s never too late—not at any age. Find your own path, wherever it may lead. Being a late bloomer can be an incredible gift. It can lead to successes you never dreamed of.
There are many ways to succeed at writing, but quitting is the only way to fail.
Kelly Robson's short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov's Science Fiction, and multiple year's best anthologies. Her book "Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach" will be published this March from Tor.com Publishing. In 2017, she was a finalist for the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novella "Waters of Versailles" won the 2016 Aurora Award and was a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.