by Mindy Starns Clark
This is the tale of my path to publication, the roadblocks I encountered along the way, and how in the end I learned that God's timing is the best timing of all.
Born and raised in a Christian home in Hammond, Louisiana, I was the second of three children and the only girl. Blessed with loving parents and two brothers I adore, I grew up surrounded by fun, creativity, and spontaneity.
Our dad was a doctor and simply the most intelligent person I have ever known. He was also gentle and sweet and generous to a fault. He loved being with his kids—and later his grandkids—more than anything, and I have countless memories of board games, camping trips, amusement parks, and whatever else he could drum up for our entertainment or edification.
Our mother was all about creativity, and home was usually filled with all sorts of ongoing projects. She designed our house herself, and the whole place was child-centric, with a huge playroom that held a recording studio, a ballet barre, ping pong and pool tables, a climbing rope that hung from the ceiling, stairs that led to a playloft, and even a fireman's pole! Needless to say, something fun was always happening there.
I was constantly playing and pretending, always writing and reading and thinking up stories. If my dolls went on some especially interesting pretend adventure, once it was over I would grab paper and pen and write it down. In school, I lived for reading hour and library day, not to mention the monthly appearance of a new book-ordering form from Junior Scholastic—and the resulting pile of novels that would magically appear on my desk a few weeks later.
My first "published" work came in the 8th grade, when I created a picture book about Thanksgiving and the teacher liked it so much that she had it mimeographed, bound, and distributed to all of the lower grades. The whole experience was deeply satisfying and awoke within me the idea of becoming a real author.
In high school, my interest in writing intensified with every good book I read, every writing assignment I turned in, every issue of Writer's Digest I devoured. In the 11th grade, my best friend challenged me to write a story that would make her cry, so I penned some maudlin tale with a dead mother who left behind for her teenage daughter a message in a music box. By the time I was done, I no longer cared whether the story made my friend cry or not, it had made me cry as I was writing it, which surely had to be even better.
For college, I went to Clemson University, where I earned a BA in English with a specialization in Creative Writing. Thanks to a few small successes at the college level (some awards, recognitions, writing contest wins, etc.), I truly thought I was well on my way to success as a writer in the big wide world. Filled with confidence in my own abilities, I dreamed of a future that included not just a novel but a bestselling one—as well as a Broadway play and an Academy Award-winning screenplay. Clearly, my aspirations were as big as my ego!
Naively, I thought if I worked hard and did my best, everything would simply fall into place. It never crossed my mind that I still had a lot of writing skills yet to acquire, nor how highly the odds were stacked against me in the world of publishing. According to data from the US Department of Labor, "Professional Author" ranks as the second most competitive career in America, a reality I sure wish I'd been able to grasp back then.
Straight out of college, I tried to become a freelance writer, but after six months of constant writing and submitting, all I had to show for it were a giant stack of rejection letters, a few published pieces, and a total net income of $75. Humbled and broke, I knew I had no choice but to call it quits. I needed to get a paying job, preferably one that involved writing or at least would help me develop some skills that would be useful as a writer.
Back in Louisiana, I found a position in Baton Rouge as a travel agent, which seemed perfect to me since I'd always heard that writers ought to see the world. The work was fun, and I really did get to travel to all sorts of amazing places—usually for free or at deep discounts. Many of those trips were to New Jersey, where I would meet up with my best friend from college, an awesome guy named John Clark. It was on one such trip that he and I settled down in a quiet corner of a hotel lobby, laughed and joked and chatted late into the evening, and then suddenly realized that the sun was coming up. We'd been talking for eleven hours! On my flight home later that day, it struck me with great astonishment that I was in love with my best friend.
Not wanting to risk destroying that friendship, I decided not to say anything at first. I had a pretty strong feeling he was in love with me too—he just didn't see it yet. Once he finally figured it out, he came to Louisiana, sat me down, and shared what he thought would be a shocking revelation, that he was in love with me. "Well, it's about time," I replied with a wide grin, assuring him that the feeling was mutual.
We both understood what that meant, because you don't risk the most important friendship in your life unless you're willing to turn it into something even bigger. After so many years, we knew each other well enough to cut right to the heart of the matter, however, and within minutes we were talking marriage. Within hours we were sitting on a paddleboat on the Mississippi, listening to jazz and planning out the rest of our lives.
One issue facing us was that we knew we shouldn't just go from being friends to spouses without becoming girlfriend and boyfriend for a while in between. We needed to date first, but that meant living within proximity of each other, not 2000 miles apart. After weighing our options, we decided that I would be the one to make the shift, so I quit my job, whittled down my possessions, and moved out of my apartment.
Before I headed off to New Jersey, however, I took the time to do something I'd been dreaming of for a while: I spent three months attempting to write my first novel. By the time I finished, I had learned three things: One, I would forever be grateful to my parents for letting me live expense free in their little garage apartment while I gave it a shot, two, those three months were among the most fun of my entire life, and three, though the finished product did have some successful elements, overall it wasn't very good. Clearly, I had a lot more to learn than I'd thought I did about crafting a novel, which was different than any other kind of writing I'd ever done. Humbled even further, I tucked the manuscript away in a box, prayed for patience regarding my writing career, and moved on to the next phase of my life.
In New Jersey, I found a job as a copywriter for a computer software company. I also started doing copywriting on the side for a local PR firm, penning everything from brochures to radio ads to clothing catalog descriptions and more. In my spare time, I wrote plays and musicals for my new church. At the computer company, I began to gravitate toward technical writing and eventually became head of the department. The work was incredibly tedious at times, but I picked up numerous invaluable skills for any writer—not just practical, computer-related stuff but also things like how to manage large projects, or how to make a change to an early chapter then feed that change throughout the rest of an entire book.
John and I married in the fall of 1988, nine years and three months after the day we first met. We bought a small house in New Jersey, and while John went to law school by day and worked a full time accounting job at night, I kept plugging away at the software company, eventually editing and writing more than 75 computer software manuals.
By 1992, we had two daughters, Emily and Lauren, and John was working as a CPA and an attorney for a Princeton law firm. I absolutely adored being a full time mom, though I still wrote in my spare time, doing freelance articles for a Bridal magazine and finding some success as a published playwright. My plays and musicals were for the school and church market—in other words, about as far from Broadway as one can get—but at least I was making regular money as a freelancer at last. I also tried my hand at penning another novel, but it took a long time and in the end it wasn't much better than my first. More prayer, more humility, more patience as I boxed it up and put it away and wondered if this dream of being a successful novelist was ever really going to come true.
Eventually, John felt called to the nonprofit sector, so we moved to the Philadelphia area where he began working in the children's mental healthcare field as a CFO and Legal Counsel. That's where we were living when I discovered my first writer's conference—and realized almost immediately that that was a big piece of the puzzle I'd been missing all along. The conference was filled with all kinds of information and inspiration and advice and networking opportunities and more. I started attending as many such conferences as I could, soaking them up like a sponge. To this day, "attend a good writers conference" is still the best advice I can give to any aspiring author.
Eager to put what I was learning into practice, I finally decided it was time to try writing another novel. I was feeling a bit more optimistic this time, for three reasons. First, I'd come to realize that my previous attempts had been missing one very important element: a spiritual component. As a Christian, my faith was at the center of my life, yet I was trying to tell stories that avoided the topic entirely. I'd never heard of Christian fiction, and I knew that such an approach would limit my overall marketability, but next time around, I decided, my main character was going to be a woman of faith. No preaching, no plots that centered around religion or the church, just a three dimensional heroine who tried to live out what she believed, turned to the Bible for guidance, and sometimes prayed.
Second, thanks to all those conferences, I now had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to write—a mystery series about a private detective—and I was starting to get some ideas for a "hook" that would make the stories unique.
Third, I had a "secret weapon" by my side, my husband John, who'd always had solid writing skills and had served as a first reader and editor for much of my work. Over the years, however, he'd also become a great brainstorming partner, plot-problem-solver, and idea man. Together, we tossed around ideas and narrowed down possibilities until we had fleshed out a solid premise.
The story, we decided, would be about newly widowed attorney and private investigator Callie Webber who takes a job evaluating charities on behalf of a mysterious philanthropist. All of Callie's communications with her new boss would be via phone, and when she wasn't investigating her latest charity—or some murder that cropped up along the way—she'd be wondering exactly who her enigmatic employer was and why he insisted on keeping his identity a secret.
The day we finished fleshing things out, I ran up to my office, shut the door, and started clattering away on the keyboard of my little Macintosh 512K. There, as John handled childcare duties downstairs, I pumped out Chapter One of what would eventually become my first published novel, A Penny for Your Thoughts.
Of course, I still had more than 50 chapters to go, and I already had my hands full caring for two children, working part time, and freelancing on the side. But somehow I knew this would be the one. Over the next several years, by grabbing little moments here and there, I managed to get the book written. When it was finished, I sought feedback from a few trusted friends and family members, all of whom were very helpful. The most important comment came from my wonderful sister-in-law, Suzanne. She loved the book, but at the end of one chapter she had written, "You've given me no real need to turn the page."
I saw immediately that she was right. I was wrapping things up so neatly along the way that while the plot itself was working, my telling of it wasn't nearly compelling enough. With that thought in mind, I did a rewrite, this time with the goal of creating a story that was impossible to put down. I was going to give my sister-in-law a reason to turn the page—on every page—if it killed me! By the time I finished, I knew I had done it, I had finally written a novel good enough to submit for publication. Best of all, I had managed to create a protagonist who seemed like a real, three-dimensional person, with guts and smarts and faith all rolled into one.
Finding an agent and then a publisher is never a quick process, however, and the next few years were some of the most frustrating of my career. As time kept passing, I began to lose hope of ever succeeding. That ambitious graduate's giant ego had been whittled away long ago, but the dream was still there and as big as ever. I began spending a lot of time questioning God, asking Him why He would put these desires in me if He had no intention of ever allowing them to come to fruition. His response, as always, seemed to be Just wait. So wait I did—until the day I got the phone call that would change my life.
It happened in August of 2000. We'd been on vacation in upstate New York and were making the long drive home when I decided to call and check our voicemail. I hadn't heard from my agent in months, but suddenly there was a message from him, short and to the point:
Mindy? It's Frank. I sold your book. In fact, I sold your whole series. Give me a call.
That was it. Frantic, I dialed him back, but by then it was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, and he'd already left for the weekend. To say that the next two days were the longest of my life is an understatement. First thing Monday morning, however, I was back on the phone and hearing the news I'd been waiting for my whole life: I was to be a published novelist at last. Better yet, the place that wanted my series, Harvest House Publishers, was one of the best in the business, known for their integrity, their wonderful staff, and their gorgeous book covers. I was beside myself with glee.
Back when I first graduated from college, I'd felt sure I'd be a successful novelist within two years, tops. Instead, it would end up taking twenty. And though that was about ten times longer than I'd ever expected, the honest truth is I am infinitely grateful that the timing worked out as it did.
Here's why: Despite all my big dreams, I had no idea what it really meant to be a professional author, no clue regarding the vast amount of time and effort the life of a multi-published novelist would actually require. Had I succeeded on my timetable, my life would've been disastrous, for many reasons...
If it had happened in my twenties, I would've been as obnoxious and entitled as they come—not to mention that I would've missed acquiring a huge array of vital skills and experiences that I was sorely going to need. Every job, every delay, every person who came into my life, every heartbreak, every joy, everything that was still to happen over those next 20 years was going to be absolutely necessary for my chosen career. Most importantly, had I succeeded in my twenties, I might never have been in a position to spend enough time with my best friend John to figure out that he was my Mr. Right.
If it had happened in my thirties, I couldn't have been a full time mom, which was vastly more important to me than any career. I also couldn't have been there for my husband when he was finishing law school and first starting out in business and needed me to shoulder as much of the load at home as I could.
But because it happened in my forties, I was finally in a position to make it work. By then, both kids were in middle school, old enough to take on a few more household chores and to accommodate the unique demands of a mother who works from home full time. John was well established in his profession and easily able to flex his hours and take over numerous duties around the house and with the children.
Best of all, the kids were at the perfect age to really be a part of what was happening. They loved seeing their Mommy's big dream come true, and they are my biggest cheerleaders still.
These days, I have 30+ published books and I'm still going strong. John is still my best friend, not to mention my business advisor, accountant, lawyer, voice of wisdom, first reader, brainstorming partner, and idea generator extraordinaire. The girls are grown and living on their own, and they are beautiful young women, inside and out.
Fortunately, they remain a huge part of what I do. Just yesterday, using our family texting loop, I sent out a plea for help with a character, and within minutes they'd given me enough input that I was able to solve my issue and keep going. Such is the writing life.
By now, I've got enough books under my belt that there's plenty of fodder for reflection. In fact, a recent statistical analysis of more than 500 reviews for 10 different books of mine showed that the #1 most commonly praised element of my work is its "can't-put-it-down" factor. That's why my new slogan is Read Now, Sleep Later, because one of my main artistic goals is to keep my readers reading no matter what. In other words, there's nothing I love more than bringing you into a world you don't want to leave—even if that means keeping you up past your bedtime!
I may not be that little girl recording her dolls' adventures or the full-of-herself college student thinking the world is hers for the taking or the almost-there novelist yearning for a publisher. But I'm still telling stories, still making myself cry sometimes as I write, and still giving my readers reasons to turn the page.
Most of all, I'm still thanking God daily that not only did He allow my biggest dreams to come true, but that He did so at the exact right time, in the right place with the right people, all without wasting a single moment along the way.
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