But wait! Before the other authors start throwing things at me, let me tell the whole story.
I first went to art school (Rhode Island School of Design), where I studied photography. I learned I didn't want to be a photographer, but I got a great education in creativity and critiquing. Learning how to analyze and express what I feel works and doesn't work in other people's art has served me well in analyzing my own writing and especially in teaching/critiquing others. And learning how to take a critique as a learning experience helped build a thick skin. I also started writing for the school paper and got interested in journalism.
After two years of going nowhere much, I went back to college for my MA degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. Although I was focused on magazine nonfiction, I took classes in fiction, children's picture books, and book publishing. I went to New York City to look for work in magazines. While job hunting and doing temp work, I decided to start a novel for my own entertainment. I had an idea for a middle grade (ages 9 to 12) novel set in Mayan Guatemala, where I'd spent a summer traveling after college.
That became The Well of Sacrifice, which got me an agent and a book contract with Clarion – mainly because I was very, very lucky. First of all, historical fiction for kids was selling much better then than it does today. And there was no other historical fiction about the pre-Columbian Maya for middle grade kids. I didn't know that, or that kids study the Maya in fourth grade, or that teachers often use supplemental fiction when they teach history. So I accidentally wrote a book that was very marketable. It came out in 1999, and I still get a nice royalty check twice a year, mainly because of school purchases.
I also got lucky because I didn't make any of the mistakes first novelist typically make. I saved those for my second book… And my third… And my fourth… In fact, I went on to write something like eight novels that I couldn't sell. I don't know if I would've had the stamina to keep with it if I hadn't had that early success.
I had naïvely quit my job at a magazine and moved west after selling the book, because I had money in the bank and thought I could make it as a writer. Over the next decade, I did work for hire nonfiction, sold a couple of short stories and a larger number of articles, and taught writing for children through a correspondence course and at local colleges (and did a lot more temp work).
I'm thinking about doing a breakdown in the new year on where my 2011 income came from, as an example of how a professional writer makes a living. Would you be interested in hearing about that, or should I stick more to writing craft?