Writing as a Second Career: Seven Middle-Life Authors Share Their Experiences

One of the interesting things about middle grade fiction is how many authors begin writing for children after working in other careers for many years.  So many, in fact, that those of us who’ve made the leap to writing for children suspect there are many more aspiring authors out there who are second-guessing whether or not to take the leap themselves. Seven authors — Kristin L. Gray, Wendy McLeod MacKnight, Sally J. Pla, Jonathan Rosen, Melissa Roske, Corabel Shofner, and Rob Vlock — have pulled back the curtain to share their own experiences, and perhaps encourage others that it’s never too late to chase their dream.

. . .

Kristin L. Gray — Author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2017

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What was your previous career? 

Pediatric RN, Stay-at-Home Mom of five

Why did you change? 

My youngest began school, and I’d let my RN license lapse. I decided to give myself that year to buckle down and get serious about my dream. Up to that point, I’d treated writing like a hobby.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

Being around kids! Observing their speech, their body language, their negotiation skills, their zest for life.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Same age audience.

Differences?

Fewer kids crying!

Is it ever too late?

Never. Anna Sewell didn’t start writing Black Beauty until age 51, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 when the first Little House book published.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career? 

Writing more books, improving my craft, making more friends.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors? 

Read what’s current. Join a writing community, in person or online. Enjoy the journey. It’s a privilege to do what we do.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight — Author, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face, Sky Pony Press, 2017 and The Frame-Up, Greenwillow Books, June 5th, 2018

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What was your previous career(s)? 

I taught part-time at the University of New Brunswick and I was a civil servant for the province, rising to the level of Deputy Minister of Education.

Why did you change? 

I’d dreamed of writing for children my whole life. One day I woke up and decided it was now or never and left.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

Tenacity, not taking others’ criticism of my work personally, work ethic.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career?

Deadlines, managing expectations, having to work long hours under very tight deadlines.

Differences?

In my previous career, everything was about implementing political policy directions. This career is solely for me.

Is it ever too late?

So long as you can access your inner child, and unleash your imagination, you are good to go!

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career? 

Writing, learning, and hopefully inspiring kids just like I was inspired by the books I read.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors? 

The kidlit world has changed and you need to understand it. Strive for excellence, make connections, and find peers and teachers who can give you useful feedback. And keep trying!

Sally J. Pla — Author, The Someday Birds,Harper Books, 2017 and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, Harper Books, February 6th, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.12 AM What was your previous career(s)? 

Business journalist. Front desk clerk. Freelance writer on business/family/education issues. School board president. Bad waitress. Terrible back-up singer in a local band. Mother. Special needs advocate.

Why did you change? 

Life comes in phases. I loved everything I did while I was doing it. (Except for waitressing. Those trays were HEAVY, and they made such a mess when you dropped them in the middle of the restaurant!)

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit? 

I’ve always been a writer at heart and have always viewed everything in life as writing-fodder (for better or worse). The more life you live, well, the more fodder you have… Also, raising three little boys close in age, and surviving to tell the tale (they are all young adults now) gave me lots of stories. LOTS OF STORIES.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career?

I almost always wrote for a living — for journals, magazines, and businesses. Can’t not write.

Differences?

This is the first time I really love what I get to write. I have always, always wanted to write fiction, but it took me decades to finally give myself the permission to try. (Hey, I have self-esteem issues! I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I mean, what audacity, to assume you can write a novel!)

Is it ever too late? 

Absolutely NOT. HAVE THE AUDACITY! OWN THE AUDACITY!

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Many books of all sorts. Hopefully, I’ve got time! I mean, Ursula LeGuin was writing until she just passed away at 88. Grandma Moses started painting at 78. Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman started writing at 49. Inspiring, right?

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Don’t make it be about getting published. Make it be about the art. The journey, not the destination. Do it for the work’s sake — for the love of perfecting an amazing, rich, full-of-life story. Eventually, you’ll know when it’s time for the next level.

Jonathan Rosen — Author, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, Sky Pony Press, 2017

 Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.23 AMWhat was your previous career? 

Which one? I did a few different jobs, but I did daytrading for many years, until the market really started tanking, and I transitioned into the lucrative field of education. From there, it was a more natural switch to writing, which I had always wanted to do, but never devoted the time to it.

Why did you change? 

I had always wanted to write, and being an English teacher meant that I was already immersed in literature. The bug came back, and I really sat down to do it.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

As a teacher, I was already doing literature. Reading, studying it, analyzing it. I got to discuss some of my favorite books, but kept thinking I want kids to discuss my work one day.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Well, besides being immersed in books, I do think you have to study your craft. By that, I mean reading a lot. Also, reading and learning about writing. I love to read new middle grade books and think about story structure. What would I have done the same or differently? Would I have made the same choices as this author?

Differences?

It’ll sound funny to say in a world where deadlines are ever-present, but I like the solitude. I don’t have to answer to people about my work. It’s freeing, that I’m in total control of what I do. Though, I guess, agents and editors might beg to differ.

Is it ever too late? 

No. Definitely not. We all have to follow our own paths to whatever gets us here. And just because your first book might not be published until later in life, doesn’t make it any less of a great story than someone who publishes right out of school, or along those lines. It’s your journey, and everyone’s is different.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

I want to write, write, and write. I want to have as many books out as I can and leave behind a body of work for kids to enjoy. I have a lot of stories I want to tell.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Keep at it and NEVER give up. Rejections are tough to deal with, but we’ve all had them. It’s discouraging, but don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not going to make it. Learn your craft, study, and write. It can happen.  

Melissa Roske — Author, Kat Greene Comes Clean, Charlesbridge Books, 2017

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What was your previous career? 

Magazine editor/freelance writer; advice columnist; life coach.

Why did you change?

I didn’t change, exactly. I’ve always written for work; I just lacked the discipline to write anything longer than a magazine article, or answers to readers’ letters in my advice column. But then, when I became a life coach, I realized that my lifelong dream was too important to ignore. So I stopped ignoring it, and wrote a novel.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

As a magazine editor/writer, I learned to listen to the rhythm of words. As an advice columnist: Not every problem has a solution—but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find it. As a life coach: Your inner voice always has something important to say. Listen to it.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

Using the written word to express my thoughts, feelings, and ideas; adhering to deadlines; paper cuts.

Differences?

Working in pajamas (I don’t do it, but I could); no waiting in line for the Xerox machine (there is no Xerox machine); talking to myself without getting the side-eye from co-workers (there are no co-workers).

Is it ever too late?

If Grandma Moses started painting at 78, well… why the heck not?

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Writing more books; worrying less about what people think of my books. You can’t please everyone, but you can be true to yourself—and to your readers.

 What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

I know it sounds trite, but DON’T GIVE UP! I actually did give up at one point, but the urge to write overpowered the desire to quit. Being stubborn helps, too. 

Corabel Shofner — Author, Almost Paradise, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.45 AM  What was your previous career? 

What is this thing you call a career? I’ve been a traveler, a lawyer, an actress, a wife and mother.

Why did you change careers? 

I got old.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

Law: research & communication; Actress: imagination & tenacity; Traveling: bravery & energy; Family: faith & love

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? 

You must study to become excellent at anything. Writing is no exception. Keep learning. Network. Have fun.

Differences?

Have to break in, so to speak. And that is weird particularly for an older person. Fortunately, I learned to handle rejection as an actress. It’s no big deal. You only need one agent and one editor to love your work to get published.

Is it ever too late?

Absolutely NOT. My debut novel came out when I was 64 and I think it is a perfect age.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your new career?

Writing many books for children. Promoting librarians and teachers.

What advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Treat it like a job. Learn the craft, work hard, learn the business and get out there. Oh and get a layer of teflon for rejections.  I can’t tell you how many friends stop because of rejections. An independent editor told me to submit to 100 agents before giving up on a manuscript.  With so many submissions you can’t take it personally.

Rob Vlock — Author, Sven Carter and the Trashmouth Effect, Simon and Schuster/Aladdin, 2017 and Sven Carter and the Android Army, Simon and Schuster/Aladdin, Fall 2018

 Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 7.15.53 AMWhat was your previous career? 

I started out teaching college writing at a couple of schools in the Boston area, but I was a pretty lousy teacher. So I became an advertising copywriter. SPOILER: It’s not as glamorous and exciting as MAD MEN would make lead you to believe. (Although I do have some stories….)

Why did you change?

I got tired of writing ads for life insurance companies, banks, software companies, health insurers and pharmacy chains. So I started working on my first book — an adult commercial novel about a copywriter who writes ads about flushable scented butt wipes.

What in your previous career prepared you for kidlit?

Being a copywriter was actually great preparation. You learn to be creative on demand, grow a thick skin, and cope with tons of distractions and competing demands and scathing criticism, and way too tight deadlines. It’s an awful lot like being a kidlit author, come to think of it.

Commonalities in previous career/this new career? Differences?

They’re similar in that they’re actually both really fun careers that can be incredibly rewarding — and incredibly bruising. The biggest differences: 1) Ads are typically much shorter than novels. 2) Being an author is a far more solitary endeavor.

Is it ever too late?

Of course not! My father, who just turned 90, has started his memoir. And I have every expectation that he’ll get it published! And I, decades out of college, am only now feeling like I’m hitting my creative stride.

What do you envision for the next few decades of your career?

Other than fretting and stressing over deadlines and sales? I envision continuing to write books that delight the 12-year-old inside me and give kids a reason to put down their iPhone and pick up a book!

What piece of advice do you have for older aspiring authors?

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old. Just keep working and keep looking forward. Oh, and be sure to eat plenty of fiber.

One thought on “Writing as a Second Career: Seven Middle-Life Authors Share Their Experiences

  1. What a great topic! As an older, second career writer, it can sometimes feel like the kidlit “sea” is filled with young, flashy fish. I love the messages all these older authors are giving: “dive in, learn, have fun, and never give up”!

    Liked by 1 person

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