Write Your Book

Five Things I Wish I’d Known

Five years ago when I turned seventy, a new decade presented itself, and I realized that time was a’wasting!

Imagine yourself my age, looking back on the decades of endless revisions, query letters, and the occasional publication and literary prize. Art for art’s sake and all that. I knew how to write a novel, but agents told me the novel I was sending around was not what they were looking for. One agent told me to my face that he was only “taking on” writers under forty. I asked why. “I need young writers to pay for my retirement,” he said.

Was he joking? Absolutely not. I heard the same opinion publicly expressed by another agent on a panel at Arizona State University’s “Desert Nights, Rising Stars” writers’ conference.

The agent said that in a year of reading through query letters, he had only “taken on” one writer of seventy, and that writer had built a regional reputation in New England. He had five books out, and his wife managed his website. The agent described how this was all about to change.

The agent had made a deal with a publisher. He’d gotten the author a sizeable advance. The publisher would now “rebrand” the author by giving him a better website, putting new covers on his books, and doing a publicity campaign.

Hands went up. Questions flew. “I wrote a book for my grandchildren,” one woman said. “How do I find an agent who handles children’s books?”

I wondered how many in that gray-haired audience understood that even the best query letter in the world would fail to capture an agent’s interest. The odds of an agent taking on one-book-wonders was slim to none.

The playing field in publishing is not fair. For newcomers to the writing scene, the world of digital publishing offers opportunities for self-expression that did not exist in the past. But for anyone of my generation, figuring out how to self-publish a book and find readers presents a whole new set of tasks. Most writers would rather be writing.

Write Your Novel and Don’t Give Up

Listen to me. No matter what your age, you can write a novel. You can publish a novel, and find readers who will appreciate your work. Wherever you are, it’s not too late. Just in case you’re young enough and willing to listen to some free advice, here’s what I wish I’d done:

  • Written 500 words every day, rain or shine;
  • Not wasted a decade on a novel I thought I should finish, simply because I’d couldn’t face “being a quitter;”
  • Not revised my manuscript one more time when an agent told me she hadn’t “fallen in love” with the characters;
  • Listened to my heart about what was good and worthy in my writing;
  • Made up my mind to get my book published, no matter what.

You probably think I’m kidding about the last comment, but I’m dead serious. A few year back on New Year’s Eve, I vowed to find a publisher for both my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, and my short story collection, Bonds of Love and Blood.

I was proud of both manuscripts and had spent a decade polishing them. I didn’t want to self-publish because I didn’t think I had the skills to do my own promotion. But I faced an insurmountable obstacle. Despite repeated efforts, I still didn’t have an agent.

I’m here to tell you that if you want to publish your novel, you must plant the idea that your book is worthy of publication, and then you must stop at nothing until you hold it in your hands. Many websites, including this one, can help you learn how to write a novel, but only you can put the building blocks in place to guarantee success.

What is the number one thing you can do to help yourself? Figure out your own “writing practice.” That could involve getting up at 5:00 a.m. It could involve working all day Saturday. It could involve getting up after your family has gone to bed. (That’s what Diane Gabaldon did when she wrote Outlander.) Whatever habits you develop around regularly showing up at your desk are the habits that will turn you from a dilettante into a writer. As James Baldwin said, a writer’s job is “to fill the bookshelf.”

This website is all about helping you write the best book you can write, helping you find a path to publication, and helping you connect with readers.

I know a good bit about the writing craft, and I’m eager to share my successes and failures, including what I am still learning about how to find and connect with readers.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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