How I wrote my first novel at 50

Australian author Nigel Bartlett is living proof that life really can start at 50 with the launch of his first novel King of the Road.

Q. How long had you wanted to write a novel?
I’d held that dream for 28 years. I first voiced it when I was 22 and was working in a job packing books in a warehouse after finishing university. Then my lost dream started raising its head again in my 30s, but I found it a struggle to do anything about it.

I still thought writers only wrote when inspiration struck, or when time suddenly appeared in their lives. When I finally listened to how writers worked, and I discovered from doing a course at the Writers’ Studio in Sydney that you need to make writing a discipline, I was finally able to start putting words on paper in a consistent fashion.

Q. How did it feel when your first novel was published on your 50th birthday?
It was beyond my wildest dreams when Vintage/Random House said they wanted to publish King of the Road. The fact that the book was released on my 50th birthday seemed very significant and was a very happy coincidence.

I’ve always found the ‘zero’ birthdays have heralded big changes giving me a new lease of life each time. Seeing King of the Road in print was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

I’d once thought I couldn’t write a book until I retired and had the time available, so to do it while working full-time and to celebrate that achievement on this big milestone birthday felt wonderful. I celebrated with a book launch! A huge number of people turned up, and Gleebooks in Glebe, Sydney sold 100 copies of King of the Road that afternoon, which felt fantastic. I didn’t need a birthday party after that.

King Of The Road CoverGet a copy of King of the Road here

Q. Why did you decide to write a crime thriller?
Initially, I didn’t decide to write a crime thriller at all. But the novel took that turn when I was halfway through the first draft of what I’d thought would be just a quiet family drama. The story was boring, so I had to make something happen. In every subsequent draft I rewrote the story with “crime fiction” firmly planted on my mind.

I threw out more than 50,000 words of that first draft. When the book came out and people were reading it in a week, or just a couple of days, or in some cases in one night flat, and they were telling me they couldn’t put it down, I thought, “It really is a crime thriller.”

Q. How hard it was to write your novel?
At times it felt incredibly hard. Finding time to write was very difficult, having no idea where the story was going in the early and middle stages, being wracked by self-doubt and really just not knowing if the whole enterprise would ever amount to anything – living with all those frustrations and anxieties can feel like a huge burden. Following a dream or passion is such a strange thing. How do you know how far to pursue it before giving up?

I decided to keep plodding away and to let go of the eventual result as much as possible. I tried to gain encouragement from listening to other writers speaking about how they worked. I tried to make writing as ‘social’ as possible (because it’s generally so solitary) by joining a writing group, going to writing events, catching up with writer friends and so on, and I tried to ignore negative voices, either from other people or in my own head.

My process was to write the first draft from start to finish, not knowing where the story was going or how it would end. For the second draft, when I knew this was a crime story, I wrote a more detailed plot outline and followed that. For the third and fourth drafts, I scratched out certain sections and added in new ones. For the fifth and sixth drafts I tried to make sure I’d left no stone unturned, in terms of making sure everything tied up, all the connections between different events were clear and that any plot holes had been closed.

Q. How has it felt getting such a great response?
For several weeks I found it hard to get to sleep and kept waking early – I had so much adrenalin. I kept receiving messages and emails from people who loved the book. I took screen shots of them all so that I’d never forget them.

King of the Road ended up being reviewed by every major newspaper in Australia and lots of magazines, and I’m very grateful for all the wonderful words said about it. I feel as if all that time I spent on the book was worthwhile, and that I can actually do that thing I really wasn’t sure I could do – I can write. In many other ways, though, life is no different.

Q. How do you look ahead to your next 50 years?
Well, I now know that I’m on the right path with being a writer. I no longer have to worry about whether that’s the ‘right’ thing for me to do. I just have to make sure I can still do it while also making enough of a living to provide for my future.

I still have a day job (as a freelance writer and sub-editor for magazines and websites), but I would love to get to the point where I can earn a decent living just from novel-writing.

Q. Writing is a sedentary job. How do you take care of yourself?
I go to the gym each morning before work, five days a week, and I go for a gentle bike ride every Saturday. Exercise is vital for me – for my mental and physical health, and for how I feel about myself.

I also try to eat healthily Monday to Friday, allowing myself to eat what I want on Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s something I’ve learnt works for me – fruit, veg, protein, good carbs, saving refined sugar and fatty foods for weekend treats.

I had bladder cancer when I was 40 and am lucky to be alive (it was caught early), so I know how important health is. I place it ahead of all else.

Q. What advice would you have for others who have a dream like yours?
You have to be pragmatic. I’m not a believer in giving up everything else to follow my dream. I wanted to be a published author and I needed to earn a living and I wanted to be fit and healthy and I wanted to spend time with family and friends. So that all requires balance.

If I’d chucked in my job, or locked myself away without seeing anyone, or stopped exercising and eating healthy foods, I would have been penniless, lonely and probably at death’s door.

However, you do have to prioritise. I also wanted to be in a choir that I loved, but I gave it up as it took up too much of my spare time. I didn’t want my mental energy to be taken up by work stress, so I now work at a lower level of seniority than I could do.

I knew I needed to carve out time in my life for writing, so I say no to social engagements on Sundays. It’s the only way I can find time to write. Is it worth it? For me, yes. I would be seriously annoyed with myself if, when I was on my deathbed, I hadn’t tried as hard as I could to be a published author.

Q. How many hours a week do you write?
On Sundays I don’t leave the flat until the evening, I switch off the phone and I use a program that blocks computer access to the internet and email for however long I tell it to. I don’t try to write a set number of words, because sometimes it can be a question of plotting or editing, but there are days when I think, “If I can get to 2000 words, I’ll be happy.” Sometimes I write more, other times I write less. For me, writing a book is a very slow process.

I also jot down ideas constantly in a notebook or on my phone, or I go through spells of writing for half an hour a day, which is all the time I can afford during the week. But Sundays are usually my sacred writing days. I also took time off work for a few weeks occasionally when I was working on King of the Road at the later stages.

Q. What has the highlight been?
Seeing glowing reviews appear in Spectrum (in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age) and The Australian were definitely high points! The biggest kick, though, was seeing the first tweet from a total stranger before the book had even gone on sale – a magazine reviewer had seen an early copy and tweeted that she loved it, describing it as “a ripper of a read”.

That was the first inkling I had that King of the Road had done what I’d hoped it would: excite readers.

I’m now working on my next novel. At this stage it involves some of the characters from King of the Road (David, Matty and one of the police officers, Fahd), which is exciting as I love all three of those guys and want to see where they’ll go to next.

To read a free sample of the Australian crime thriller King of the Road click here.

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