For years, I wrote short stories. I got them published here and there, but I made my living with a job in another field. I was happy being a part-time writer. Publishing short stories doesn’t change your life that much. People don’t stop you on the street and ask, “Was that your flash fiction in the latest quarterly?" You don't have to duck the paparazzi.
But I did hunger to see what else I could do with my writing. I wanted to try a novel. Occasionally I managed to put together a full-length manuscript, but I seldom carried it past one or two drafts. Writing a book was much more of a commitment, too—not only in terms of the length of the project, but in terms of what publication would mean. Advance money, royalties, and taxes would affect my finances; book promotion and the possibility of an agent would mean interacting with people in new ways. I would have to learn more about contracts, foreign rights, and publicity. Becoming a novelist was a step that I wanted to take, but in many ways was scared to take.
I kept putting other things on the front burner: Education for my day job. Volunteer work. Travel. Romance and marriage. But in 2003, I looked at my life and decided it was time to give writing a turn on the front burner.
The first thing I did was to acknowledge that I loved young-adult novels, I had been reading them for years, and they were what I really wanted to write. Oddly, this had never occurred to me before. I’d been writing literary fiction, and even the fact that most of my protagonists were teenagers didn’t tip me off. When I finally accepted this, I took a course in children’s writing that was then taught at the University of Pennsylvania by Vivian Grey.
I walked into the classroom with a rough draft of a gritty, dark contemporary YA manuscript. When we went around the room to discuss why we were there, I found that most of my classmates were mothers of young children, and everyone seemed to want to write picture books. At that moment, my manuscript felt even grittier and darker than before. I wondered if maybe I didn’t fit into this world after all.
But Vivian Grey took us through the whole range of children’s writing, from board books through YA. Every week, we had to write a short assignment for a different age group. She also told us how book publishers worked, briefed us on the basics of book contracts, and told us about SCBWI and the Rutgers One-on-One Plus conference, both of which were to figure in my development as a children’s writer. The critique group I later joined was made up of alumni from her class (though they had taken the course at a different time than I did).
That course was really the first professional step I took toward becoming a novelist. In the ten years since then, I’ve sold three YA novels and at least nine short stories for children and teens. Every step along that road built on all the steps before it. But I remember that course as a turning point, because it was the moment when I made my dream a priority instead of a sideline.