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(A Writer’s) Age Is Just A Number

Photobucket [1]Kath here. Today’s guest is WU community member Mary Incontro. Mary is a former federal prosecutor hard at work on her first novel, a work of legal fiction. During her career as a reporter on Capitol Hill, an attorney and public prosecutor, writing has been a huge part of Mary’s professional life; now she is ready to take everything she’s learned about storytelling and dive into writing commercial fiction.

She lives with her husband on the Jersey shore (“I’ve seen Snooki, but we’ve never actually met,” she says ) and is a serious baseball fan. We think you’ll love her first guest post with us. Take it away, Mary!

(A Writer’s) Age Is Just A Number

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? – Satchel Paige

I have been on Twitter for a couple of years now and realized, a few months ago, that I’ve been somewhat vague about my age. So (heavy sigh) I will reveal my age in this post. I’ll give you some clues:

You could check with IMDb but I’ll save you the trouble. That movie came out in 1964 when I was 15. So now I am 63. I have never been self-conscious about my age, so why am I now? Because I am writing my first novel and…

Backstory

I have always wanted to be a writer but I took a detour by going to law school. Over nearly 25 years, I was a federal prosecutor and also held various policy level jobs in government. I loved my career.

I never lost the desire to write.

Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had since college. As a radio news reporter, I wrote my own news. On Capitol Hill, I wrote speeches and press releases. As a lawyer, I wrote pleadings and memos and policy documents.

Every time I tried a criminal case, I had to decide how best to tell the jury the story of what happened. Who should be the first witness: the victim or the first person to arrive on the scene? Which witness would have the strongest impact on the jurors, would compel their attention for the duration of the trial? And, of course, I wanted to close each case with as strong a witness as possible. The art of narrative, I found, was essential to presenting a good case at trial.

Story-telling was in my blood.

Plot Twist

So when I finally sat down to write fiction, I thought I had the tools but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. About a year into my writing, I took part in a small group workshop where we critiqued each other’s work. I submitted a story that was a fictionalized version of a case I had handled involving the murder of a toddler. I will never forget the very first comment from a fellow workshopper: “Why did I have to read this?” As the group leader, a noted editor, explained, my writing was good but there was no real conflict to speak of (the defendants confessed) nor was any character changed by the events. And the description of the autopsy may have been a bit too detailed.

I realized that while I could write, I didn’t know enough about the craft of writing. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to remedy that, reading books on craft, attending conferences and workshops, taking writing classes online, participating in critique groups. I’ve learned how to read like a writer and watch movies like a writer.

In the midst of all this, I discovered Twitter. Mystified by it at first – do people really want to know what I had for breakfast? Um, no – I discovered a world of writers, agents, readers, publicists, people as much in love with books as I am! And it’s such a generous group, giving advice, support, encouragement. I have discovered so many good writers and wonderful books through Twitter.

I have continued to write and, finally, I know I have a better sense of what I’m doing. I’m working now on a novel about a young boy who has to testify against his mom’s accused killer. I am constantly writing and revising this novel and I love the whole process.

Conflict

But recently, as if to mock my newfound writerly confidence, I have read too many articles about agents and publishers who say they are not interested in first-time writers my age. Some of the articles even advise not to disclose one’s advanced age to prospective agents until asked.

I get all that. I really do. Publishing is a business and there are so many talented young writers who have the potential to write several good books in their lifetimes.

But here’s the thing. I don’t feel old. Actually, I’m pretty hip. I love the music of Amy Winehouse and Zooey Deschanel. I like Drake. I cried at the end of Hustle and Flow. Okay, I did have to google Lana del Rey, but I suspect I’m not alone in that.

So who are “they,” these writers of discouraging articles,  to tell older first-time writers that we don’t have much to offer? I think we do. We’ve had a lot of experiences in our lives and we’re able to take the long view. We know how to put things in perspective. I’ll bet that if you’re like me, you can think of lots of other reasons that agents and publishers should give us a chance. I would love to hear them!

Resolution So despite my fear of being written off as an old lady by agents, publishers, and even fellow Twitterers, I intend to keep writing, to write the best book I can write. When I am ready to query, I hope to be judged on the quality of my writing.

I am thrilled to have this opportunity to write my first post ever for Writer Unboxed. I plan now to start a blog and write about things that matter to me (and, hopefully, others), including my thoughts on criminal cases in the news, conferences and workshops I’ve attended, books and movies, where to find story (I can find story in a recipe!), and what happens to my novel. If you leave a comment here or follow me on Twitter (@mincontro), I’ll let you know when I launch. Your feedback will keep me going. And I promise you this: I will write the best blog I can write.

Thanks for a terrific post, Mary! We’ll keep an eye out for your blog. In the meantime, you can find Mary on Twitter (@mincontro) and follow her writer’s journey along with us here at WU.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Leo Reynolds [2]