Picture: Sian Trenberth

At school I wanted to be a writer but the careers teacher suggested hairdressing. At 60 I finally got published

Julie Owen Moylan always wanted to be a writer. She finally stopped listening to her doubts...and made it come true

How I became an author at 60

Every time I visited a book shop, I would find the place on the shelf where if I were to write a book you might find it and I would make a space for it. Leaving a tiny gap that one day I might fill became a good luck charm that meant my dreams of becoming a writer were not dead. Of course, they weren’t actually alive either because I never did anything about them.

My dream of writing started in girlhood

I always wanted to be a writer. I used to scribble little stories in my notepads all the time and put on plays in school. I loved being part of the drama group, which was about the only good thing in our school. It was a large soulless place meant to churn out an army of shorthand typists and manual workers. We didn’t have a sixth form. We had no need of it. There was a no career marked writer than I was aware of.

My grandmother was a cleaner and her wish was that my mother wouldn’t have to clean up after other people. My mother worked in factories before she married and her wish was that I would work in an office. We had limited ambitions because we didn’t know there were other possibilities for people who lived in council houses, and had teachers who saw no point in encouraging ambition.

On careers day I stood in a long line of really bored kids waiting to be granted an audience with our physics teacher who moonlighted as our career advisor. We didn’t even get to sit down as I remember. I had no idea what I wanted to do and I was due to leave school that summer. I didn’t know how to say, “I want to be a writer” because there wasn’t anyone I felt I could say it to. As the line shuffled along, the girl in front of me said she wanted to be a hairdresser. It sounded creative to me and that was the closest I was going to get to working in the arts. When it was my turn I said the same thing and was given an application form for the local tech college. That was it.

The committee of people who ran my life

For the longest time I carried around a committee in my head of people who ran my life. They had useful messages to keep me in line. Helpful phrases like ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘You’re too old to try.’ I don’t know exactly when this committee moved in but when I turned 50 years old, I knew I really wanted them to move out.

The eviction process was hard because it involved risk and fear. Fear of failing. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of shattering my dreams because if you don’t try then you can’t fail and you can still believe that it could happen. Battling myself for the right to try was the first step in a 10-year journey to become an author.

For my 50th birthday I gave myself the gift of a part-time Masters in Creative Writing. It was held over two evenings a week for the best part of a year, with a further six months to submit a dissertation. We would cover short stories and novel writing in a small group of varying ages and abilities. I drank it up. I read everything on the reading list. I once flew back from a vacation in New York, landed and still made the evening seminar. That’s how much I wanted to learn everything they had to teach me.

I had success with my short stories, and then…

By the time I’d completed my Masters degree I was pretty good at constructing short stories. They arrived fully formed most of the time and on one glorious day I had two submissions accepted for publication in different magazines. I was a writer. I’d given myself permission to write and now I was reaping the rewards. When my tutor marked my dissertation, he declared the 10,000 words of a novel I’d submitted as publishable quality and I was ecstatic believing it was just a matter of time before I completed my debut novel and the literary world fell at my feet. Then I failed…again…and again…and again.

Every flavour of rejection

I wrote my first novel and sent it off to a variety of literary agents who are the gatekeepers of the publishing world. There are many literary agents mostly based in London and they are inundated with submissions. It’s a long process waiting for responses and often they never arrive. There are many flavours  of rejection in the publishing world. There’s the ‘It’s great but not for me’ or the ‘Thank you for your interest sadly…’ or if you get really lucky the ‘Can I read the rest of the manuscript?’  I had a few of those but never enough. My first novel got 70 rejections and I was crushed. My old committee popped back up to tell me they had been right all along. I was too old…not good enough…the dream was over.

I still had to get better

Except it wasn’t over. I couldn’t let it go but I couldn’t move forward because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. If I wasn’t yet good enough then I needed some way to get better and that came from professional advice from real authors who would know. I of course didn’t know any real life authors so I enrolled with the Faber Academy and took an online course: ‘Write the First 15,000 Words of Your Novel’. I figured if I got the first three chapters right then maybe I could convince an agent to take me on and work with me. The course promised feedback from tutors who were professional authors and the promise of a slot in the Faber Anthology which featured excerpts of your work and sent it out to every literary agent in London. I was sold.

How I finally wrote my first novel

The course began tentatively with me having to write an opening scene of my novel idea and put it online for the rest of the group to critique. The absolute horror of that is not to be underestimated and I couldn’t think of one single idea but then an opening line drifted into my mind and I wrote; ‘The day the box arrived my mother thought she was Jesus.’

That line turned into the opening chapters and with support and feedback from my tutor it became over the next six months the first draft of my novel. Once I’d finished my draft, I polished up the beginning, submitted the first 1,600 words to the Faber Anthology… and waited.

It was a dark November day many months later when I checked my email and saw to my surprise that several literary agents had got in touch to say they loved my opening and wanted to read more. Over the next two weeks I met with some of the biggest names in publishing and by Christmas I’d signed with my agent Nelle Andrew. We spent several months editing my manuscript for submission to publishers during a global pandemic which made both of us nervous but in the end I signed a two book deal with Penguin Michael Joseph and my debut novel That Green-Eyed Girl is out next May.

I still go into bookshops and make a space for my book. The difference this time is next year it’s going to be there. You’re never too old. Never give up on your dreams.

Julie Owen Moylan

Do you write? See the new fiction literary prize from Watson, Little for writers over age 50.

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