Too Old to Write Your First Novel?

Illustration by Conor Langton via

Think again.

Consider, from Rivka Galchen’s rundown in Harper’s of twentieth century author family life and age demographics, among them:

Alice Munro: Two husbands. Raised three children. First book of stories at age thirty-seven.

Toni Morrison: Two children. First novel at age thirty-nine.

Penelope Fitzgerald: Three children. First novel at age sixty. Then eight more.


Rock on, Penelope Fitzgerald*.

Read these author’s books, take a walk, and write your own. Bloom late.

write hard

*Author Allison Lynn recently recommended Fitzgerald’s “Offshore,” which went on to win the Booker Prize.

Another to Read: Penelope Fitzgerald biography, “A Life,” by Hermione Lee

And subscribe to Harper’s already.

Midwest Writers of Fiction and Poetry: The Lake Prize

Midwestern Gothic First Issue Cover

Finally, thanks to Midwestern Gothic, living in the midwest pays off—at least for fiction and poetry writers who “see the beauty of the region . . . quiet forests, gutted industrial waistlines, small towns or vibrant urban neighborhoods.”

I first encountered Midwestern Gothic at AWP in Boston: two articulate, self-effacing young men good-naturedly promoting only two years of issues on the dreaded second floor of the book fair at a tucked-away table in the shadow of the Dzancolith. What struck me about the guys behind the magazine, aside from their smarts, approachability, and pulsing sense of irony, was that they didn’t take themselves too seriously (not always easy to find in a literary magazine). A couple’a David Lettermans, they came off as delightfully midwestern.

Today, Midwestern Gothic announced The Lake Prize. HAPPY JULY 1!

A little about The Lake Prize

  • Stories or poems need to be set in the Midwest
  • Writers need to have lived in the Midwest at some point
  • Super reasonable entry fee
  • Fiction judge: Charles McLeod (one-time Steinbeck fellow, author of American Weather and the first person I’ve ever known to refer to Michigan, Ohio and Indiana as “Midwest’s east end”)
  • Poetry judge: Marcus Wicker (a poet who made my heart surge with Love Letter to Flavor Flav)

Midwestern fictioners and poets: catch the full Lake Prize details at Midwestern Gothic.

Midwestern Gothic First Issue Cover
Midwestern Gothic First Issue Cover


Platform Shmatform, I Said More Ham: Mysteries of the Traditional Publishing Path Revealed

Last time I posted I was on a toot about the evil, annoying necessity for writers to build platform using inbound marketing, but I think that’s really more essential for a certain type of author.

Authors of fiction, on the other hand, need most to focus on the being of writing. Platform is irrelevant:

“J.K. Rowling didn’t have a blog when she wrote Harry Potter. Does she have a platform? Stephen King doesn’t have a Twitter account. Does he have a platform? Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time, wasn’t alive when Facebook was invented. Did she have a platform?” –Joe Bunting, “What Fiction Authors Really Need to Know About Their Platform”

My Butler U MFA story structure professor and author of John Wayne: A Novel and The Next Right Thing summed up the mystery of cracking the publishing industry thusly (my paraphrase):

Every morning, agents and editors wake up, get down on their knees, and pray, “God, please let me find a great manuscript I can sell on my desk today.”

Their livelihoods depend on good story, so our job as writers is to know good story and to create one.

To wit: screw platform; write hard.* 

Corky and Dr. Allan Pearl
“Dybbuk Shmybbuk, I said, ‘More ham.'”


*And then send me your MS to edit.

Self-Promotion, Platform and Online Presence: a crass, aggravating, infuriating necessary evil

Book Buzz

I know a guy who’s writing a book. His career goal is to be a speaker at this type of thing. He is already a subject matter expert with an advanced degree that starts with a P and ends with a D, and he has a solid, healthy career with a reliable customer base. The challenge, according to prevailing publishing wisdom in 2015, is to prove all this to his target audience: agents,  acquisitions editors, and the people in charge of booking leadership conference speakers.

Got the Goods But Not The Ears
image via Social Media Today
image via Social Media Today

Word of mouth works to a point, but there’s no way to connect the right mouths to the right ears. So he’ll need to cast a wider net.

This extremely capable fellow first came to me wanting help with his book—maybe a little editing, maybe a little help working out the structure—he wasn’t really sure exactly what. The beating heart of his inquiry was a yearning for advice on getting his book published, because in his mind (and probably in real life, to some extent), book = speaking opportunities.

What I told him stunk . . .

I’m not sure what he hoped to hear, maybe a magic formula, a referral to someone who could connect him to what he longed for, maybe. What I told him stunk, that I could help him with his book or refer him to another editor who could, but that he needs to ramp up his inbound marketing efforts and all that jazz.

He has a blog, to which he intermittently posts because who has time? But he needs to leverage his online presence to build that dadburn platform. Ugh! I hate that!

Bookstores and Interwebs

It sounds so crass, doesn’t it? Why can’t a person with stellar ideas just write a book and become widely recognized as an expert? That’s how it used to happen, right? I mean, look at Patrick Lencioni and Posner and Kouzes. They wrote books and their popularity and influence caught fire on a massive scale. But no. That was in the ’80s, before Al Gore invented the Interwebs and killed the bookstores. They got in on the ground floor, those thought leaders/authors.

Now you have to Have A Robust Online Presence [gag]. Writers can’t merely show up with useful ideas and a good book anymore. [By the way, even Pat Lencioni and those leadership challenge guys invest in inbound marketing. I know: I worked on content marketing to help their publisher sell their books.] This author is the inboundmarketingest author I know. If those guys need to do it, how much more does the unknown, yet-to-be-published leadership author?


And one way to build a platform and “create buzz” is to create relevant, helpful searchable online content—blogging being just one of many tools that can be used to achieve this goal of inbound marketing.

So I told this guy: “Mr. Author, you are smart. You know how to write and organize your thoughts. You are credible in your profession and lousy with testimonials from happy customers. You do need an editor for your book (everyone does, and I’m happy to help), but to increase your odds of capturing the attention of potential readers, an agent, and an acquisition editor, you need to ramp up your online activity—starting with posting regularly to your blog and being involved in social media. And for heaven’s sake, open a Twitter account. I mean, how are you or your friends promoting your blog posts?”


My first encounter with Twitter occurred under duress, and I was not a fan. On the front edge of inbound marketing I decided to open and operate a Twitter account for a previous employer. (I was the first Beth Bates on the then-new social media platform, evidently, hence @bethbates.) I dutifully engaged, tweeted, followed, and RT’d, but I did not enjoy it, AT ALL.*

Most writers I know are introverted and would rather not expend energy connecting on Twitter or IG or Facebook or LinkedIn or Goodreads or She Writes. They want to just do their thing, write their memoirs, novels, essays, or how-to books, and that should be enough. But it isn’t enough. Connecting, for most authors, is an onerous necessarily evil.

BUT: A Silver Lining in the Pacific Northwest

But how exciting is it that I can write a blog post and a woman in Australia or a dude in the UK reads it, feels something, apprehends it as something of value, and becomes an ardent follower? Or through a reciprocal blog following I make meaningful connections with a cadre of writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest likely to be buyers of my own book (someday, maybe, when I have created a stronger platform and find an agent with the editorial vision my MS deserves).

How cool is that?! You couldn’t do THAT in the ’80s.

At least that’s what I tell this author. And myself.


*Now I honestly appreciate and even enjoy Twitter. It’s a marvelous, low-barrier way to connect with fascinating, otherwise inaccessible folks around the globe. I’ve had meaningful exchanges with memoirist Mary Karr and (LOST) composer Michael Giacchino, to name a few. When I was in the dumps a couple weeks ago, Steve Hely gave me recommendations of books that make him laugh. How cool is that?! Fun!


10 Commonly Misused Words in Writing

Originally posted on A Writer's Path:


The English language is one of the most complex in existence. With more words than any other language in the world, it is no wonder even native speakers don’t get it quite right all the time. Here’s a quick run down of my top ten most misused words. Some I am guilty of misusing myself, others are absolutely my pet peeve.

View original 1,136 more words

L’Engle on Uncertainty and Failure

prickle balls

This one goes out to all the writers who have ever experienced a sense of failure or uncertainty in their work. (To that one writer in particular—you know who you are—keep the faith. xoxoxoxo)

I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what. When I look back on [my] decade of total failure—it’s been a mixture, both before, and since—there was, even on the days of rejection slips, a tiny, stubborn refusal to be completely put down. And I think, too, and possibly most important, that there is a faith simply in the validity of art…

-Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life

Creative Nonfiction Writing Prompt: Empowerment

Henriette Browne via BBC

A sweet friend from my Montrose halcyon days recently reached out from Vancouver, BC, over Facebook, in search of writing help. I suggested a writing group, workshop, or a Creative Nonfiction online course, but her season of life limits her time and mobility, making those options impractical. So once a week, I’ve been emailing her reading and writing assignments, primarily to coach her into cultivating the habit of writing daily.

They say it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and J worked diligently to develop hers. She and I started our long distance writer/coach relationship around mid-January, and now she’s ready for more focused instruction. Her first two assignments were throat-clearers, and now we’re getting down to business. I turned to Poets & Writers for her next prompt and encountered this arresting poem by Ansel Elkins.

Autobiography of Eve

Ansel Elkins 

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

Shit! (AmIRite?)

The P&W Prompt:

“Let it be known:  I did not fall from grace. / I leapt / to freedom.” The ending of Ansel Elkin’s [sic] poem “Autobiography of Eve” is packed with confidence. Write an essay reflecting on a time when you felt a similar sense of empowerment. Maybe you ended a stifling relationship, or went back to school to train for a new career? Write about the initial fear and the certitude of your actions.

Write away.

Suicide and Recovery (You Never Fully Recover)

DadaThis morning, while others throw green and purple beads, show their t%^&s, hunt for plastic babies in colorful cakes, I celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the worst day of my life. Twenty years ago this morning I woke up under a mysterious emotional cloud in a tiny Denver foothills apartment, unaware that in six hours my insides would spill all over the carpet through my tear ducts. February 17, 1995, would mark the end of an era for people who had the pleasure of knowing my dear daddy. As bad as that day was for my mother, my sister, my brothers, myself, and anyone else lucky enough to soak up the sunshine of my father, it was the worst for him. I’m so sorry for your agony, that we couldn’t know to help you, to stop you. I try to imagine what it might have been like for you, Da…

“Preparation for Departure” – originally published 2011 in Emprise Review

The year before you leave for good, rack up the frequent flier miles scrambling to find a buyer for your piano business. If you can unload it, you will be free. You can retire.

Test-drive a Lexus. Inhale the leather scent of luxury.

Rise each morning at 3:00 a.m., and on a yellow legal pad scrawl fragments of notes that reveal your fractured thinking in the weeks preceding your death. Unraveling the mystery of your sudden departure will keep your family occupied when they gather for your funeral, and the notes will provide clues.

Two months before you leave, fly to Denver for your youngest child’s wedding. In the dim light of your hotel room, look her in the eye and assure her that if anything should happen to you, her mother will be fine, financially. Sound nonchalant.

The day before the wedding, treat the groom, groomsmen, and your sons to lunch at the Best-of-Denver barbecue joint. Offer to buy them all sweaters from Brooks Brothers on your walk back to the hotel.

At the reception in the penthouse ballroom of the Denver Petroleum Club, take your little girl into your arms for the father-of-the-bride dance. With a jazz trio playing “Unforgettable,” ask, “Are you happy?” Just to finish that business. This will be your last dance, so speak tenderly, and make it a good one.

Return to your legal pad at the kitchen table in Indiana.

Let your wife take you to the psychiatrist. Take the drugs he prescribes, even if they rob you of sleep and make you edgy. What do you know? They may work. And, at least you tried.

Two weeks before The Day, fly to L.A. in a desperate attempt to sell your business to a potential buyer who already turned you down months before.

Despair over the dead end. Fly home.

Fill another legal pad at the kitchen table with bizarre declarations about things like smoking guns.

Stop answering phone calls from your children.

Don’t shoot yourself. Your little girl will need to see your orange made-up face and awkwardly stretched, pinned-together hands as visible proof that you are really gone.

Be considerate. Schedule your exit at a time when no one will be around to interfere. Wait for your wife to leave for work.

Plan. Schedule a lunch appointment with your next-door neighbor, the one who considers you a second father, within a half hour of your departure. When you fail to meet him, he’ll come looking for you and find your body before your wife gets home from work. But lock the door so he’ll have to hack through it with an axe, his ten-year-old looking on.

On your final Sunday evening, stun your wife by accepting her invitation to join her at children’s church choir practice. As she accompanies them on the piano, hear the angel voices and succumb. Weep in the pew.

After choir practice, take your wife out for Chinese. When she notices your melancholy and asks what’s wrong say, “My life would have been different if I’d had the kind of childhood those little children have.”

On her insistence, make another appointment with the psychiatrist.

Meet with your accountant.

Meet with your attorney about that EEOC complaint from your office manager. Lament about a smoking gun, but don’t hear him when he insists there is no smoking gun, that you’re in the clear, she has no case.

Behave erratically.

A few evenings before your death, pace the kitchen with manic vigor. When your wife walks in from the garage and asks what you’re doing tell her, “I’m trying to have a heart attack.”

Frighten your wife.

Fight with her like in the early days. Stumble downstairs to the basement and drag up the pool hose. Threaten to attach it to the tailpipe of your car. When she picks up the phone to call the neighbor for help, wrestle it out of her hands and slam it back onto the hook on the wall. Come to your senses and haul the ribbed, blue snake back down to the storage room.

The night before your death you won’t feel like eating. Your wife will say, “Do you want me to drive to Colonel Sanders?” and “I’ll fix you anything you want.” Say, “I guess chicken and noodles.” Eat half a plate and stuff the rest down the disposal.

The morning of your death, rise early. Shower. Dress for work. A Macy’s suit will do. Out of habit, or just in case, place the tiny amber jar of nitroglycerin tablets in your right front trouser pocket.

Try to kiss your wife goodbye. When she rolls over, away from the fearsome creature you have become, forgive her.

Drive to work. Lock your office door. Sit at your mahogany desk. Read a Billy Graham tract that offers unconditional assurance of your place in eternity. Place it in the top right drawer.

When your wife has left for work, drive home. Pull into the garage and lower the door. Lower your window two inches.

Pull the pool hose up the stairs and take it to the garage. Duct-tape one end of the hose to the tailpipe of your Buick Riviera. Feed the other end into the driver’s side window. Duct-tape the gaps.

Duct-tape along the bottom edge of the garage door and along the sides, refusing oxygen access to the chamber.

Open the passenger door, and climb in.

Shut the door.

Slide over into the driver’s seat.

Lock the doors.

Turn on the ignition.


Feed the Lake: Write Your Teeny Weeny Little Trickle

Blue Lakes, San Juans CO
Blue Lakes, San Juans CO
Lower Blue Lake, San Juan Mountains

The Paris Review can’t get rights from the interviewer to print in its entirety the Jean Rhys interview, regrettably, so I’ll just have to quote from dear Madeleine L’Engle Herself.

“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”

This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.



My Creativity IV Drip: Madeleine L’Engle Herself


While recovering from my summer vacation heart attack last July in the small Colorado western slope town where I lived when my children were small, I stumbled upon hidden treasure on the bookshelf of my dear friend’s guest room. Like an IV drip of creativity energy, leafing through the pages of Madeleine L’Engle Herself pinked up my cheeks and kept me going while I was in limbo.

All these months later I bought my own copy. Here’s a 2-cc dose that sets me to writing again now that life’s back to normal and I have the luxury of thinking I’m too busy to create on a daily basis.

An Incarnational Event

Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.

What book pumps your creative juices?


Found Wonder: Parenting Teens Can Be Downright Astonishing

Babies Then

Dear Moms and Dads of Tiny Ones,

Less blog post than Sunday snapshot of my life, this here message is a note of encouragement to parents covered in applesauce and urine and floating through the bodily fluid era of parenting. It feels like this, too, will not pass, and as aggravating as it can be, it’s a precious time, and you might dread the teen years. Backtalk, hormones, and delinquent behavior you expect, but here is my message in a bottle to you: parenting teenagers can be quite wondrous.

My son, a senior in high school, leaves his homework and hobby detritus scattered all over the dining room table most days, and on top of today’s pile I saw a handout that stopped me cold. Or rather, I guess you could say it stopped me warmbeautiful boy, beautiful mind

I have no idea what his notes mean, but his doodles never cease to thrill me with wonder. The jocks at his school probably think he’s a nerd, but his mind and passion for language and linguistics delight this mama. What a joy to watch your children’s strengths and fascinations emerge.

And my darling sophomore-in-high school daughter, who is away this MLK weekend to play guitar on a youth retreat, warmed me Friday morning before she left for school and I left for work. As she came into my room for our morning goodbye hug and smooch, in a mournful voice she said, “Aww, I won’t see you till Monday?” The realization that I have a daughter, almost sixteen, who still adores me and would miss my company makes me feel like the luckiest mom in the world.

So you infant-cradling, Goodnight Moon-reading young moms and dads worried about your little angels growing out of this present, precious phase, take heart: don’t worry about the teen years. You think these are the sweetest days, but just you wait. It only gets better.



Babies Then
Babies Then
Babies Now
Babies Now