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.”
Machine gun bonus: 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.