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Never too late: A novelist who broke into mysteries in her 80s offers advice for writers young and old

Some people strike early—after all, Christopher Paolini published his bestseller Eragon when he was a mere 19 years old. But Eugenia Lovett West waited a bit longer—in 2007, West released her first mystery, Without Warning … at the age of 84.

While West had published a historical novel in 1979, she flirted with different genres before finding her rhythm and closing a near 30-year gap. At 87, she released her most recent book, Overkill, a tale about a global network that sells stolen viruses.

On this WD Mag Wednesday, she riffs on how publishing has changed and how age impacts a writer, and offers a few tips to scribes of all ages. (Of course, a regular Promptly prompt follows.)

Also, tomorrow Guide to Literary Agents Editor/freelancer Chuck Sambuchino and I will be teaching a live Writer's Digest webinar on selling freelance articles, exploring everything from generating article ideas to queries to the specifics of how you place your pieces in newspapers, magazines and websites. Every attendee also gets an article query critiqued. Find out more here — hope to see you there!

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How did you get into writing, and when did you first publish?
It all began by freelance reporting for local papers. Great training. Then, after churning out 300-word stories, there was a compulsion to try for 300 pages. A historical/suspense novel, The Ancestors Cry Out, was published in 1979 by Doubleday and Ballantine.

What caused the gap between your first book and your second, Without Warning?
I spent too much time trying my hand at several genres: heavy historical, romance, and then mystery.

How did Without Warning come to be?
This story should give hope to writers of all ages. I struggled to learn the rules of the mystery genre—dropping red herrings and clues and producing a surprising villain. The ms gathered rejections. I self-published it as a Christmas present for family and friends and entered the St. Martin’s Press contest for first mysteries. It was too international for the contest, but their renowned editor, Ruth Cavin, liked it and offered me a contract for two books.

How has the publishing world changed since the publication of your first book?
Enormously. A new mindset is required. E-mail has taken the place of phone calls. I work on a computer and have a website, Blogs and Q&As are exciting new areas of promotion—but given the recession, it’s harder than ever to break out of the pack.

What did you find most surprising about the process nowadays?
It still surprises me that many publishers still go through the expense of buying and producing a long list of books, then send them out into the world with a minimum of marketing and publicity.

How does age impact a writer?

In much the same way age impacts everyone. It takes more maintenance to keep the chassis on the road. There’s a stronger sense that every day must count. I haven’t run across any unique challenges. (Note: my editor Ruth Cavin is even older than I am. So is P.D. James.)

Does a wealth of experiences lead to a wealth of source material?

Absolutely. Racking up high mileage translates into meeting more people and gaining deeper insights. Through trial and error, a style evolves. I compare writing to cooking a big stew. Throw in different ingredients and stir well.

What advice do you have for younger writers?

I wish I had done my genre experiments in my 20s. Learn not to be discouraged by rejection. In my view, there are no shortcuts to applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

And your advice for older writers?
Just keep writing. Close as few doors as possible.

So what's next for you?
I’m working on the third Emma Streat mystery, so pictures are running through my head like a film. And I’m revising a historical suspense novel, applying whatever skills I learned in writing mysteries.

Is there anything you would like to add?
Writers are lucky people. It’s a blessing to wake up every morning with people to invent, stories to tell.

* * *

WRITING PROMPT:American Graffiti
free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500 words or
fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By
posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our around-the-office swag
drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking,
e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at,
with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

You're downtown, and see graffiti in an unlikely place—graffiti like you've never seen before, concerning someone you know.


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