Something happened when I birthed my first child in 1992. Suddenly the storyteller inside me ignited, and I knew I wanted to be a professional published writer. But my road to get from birthing a baby to birthing a publishing career took over a decade.
During those ten years, I wrote in obscurity, miles and miles of unpublished words. I didn’t know it, but I’d become the poster child for Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book where he shares that the secret of genius is simply practicing for 10,000 hours. Boy howdy did I practice.
I penned video screenplay for an ultrasound machine manufacturer. I created articles that were never published, giving myself fake deadlines and training myself to meet them early. I edited newsletters and made a little money from that. I wrote homeschooling curriculum.
In the year 2000 after eight years of working under the radar, we moved to the Dallas area where my husband attended Dallas Theological Seminary. My youngest was two years old and would start preschool twice a week, giving me time to write uninterrupted.
I’d written a few short stories by this time and had the kernel of a novel idea. Because I’d had a negative experience with a published writer in the mid 1990s—she wouldn’t give me the “secrets” of getting published and discouraged me—I’d grown hesitant to ask writers for help.
But during that year, something providential happened—as if God had finished up my time of unknown apprenticeship and decided to throw me into the publishing deep end. I sat next to a lady I didn’t know during a church potluck. She asked, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I had an internal debate then. Should I tell her what I really wanted to do? To write? Or was that just a crazy dream that would never amount to anything?
Eventually I decided that since I didn’t know her, it wouldn’t hurt to try out my crazy answer. “I want to be a published writer,” I told her.
She looked at me, skewed, but with a smile. “Did you know,” she asked, “that one of my passions in life is to mentor new writers?”
This potluck woman became my mentor. Her name is Sandra Glahn. She helped me craft my first query, peeled me off the sidewalk when I got a mean critique, encouraged me to join a writers group (I joined two), and generally cheerleaded me on the journey.
By 2002 I’d become a newspaper columnist by marching into my local newspaper, sharing some of my articles from my newsletter days, and asking if they needed a writer. They did. The small town press paid me $25 a week—a gold mine for a seminary wife.
I also sold my first article to a national magazine, and I began my first novel, a historical set during The Great Depression. In 2003, I attended my first major writing conference at Mount Hermon. There, to my great surprise, I met my first agent. He shopped my now-finished novel everywhere. It got some good bites, but no takers.
My agent encouraged me to write parenting books. He’d been receiving my weekly column via email, and saw something I couldn’t see about myself. I argued a lot when he pushed. “I’m not a parenting expert,” I told him. “Besides, I’m a novelist. I tell stories.”
Eventually he bothered me so much about parenting, that I emailed something like, “The only parenting book I’d ever write is for those of us who don’t want to duplicate our childhood.”
His return email simply said, “Mary, write that book.”
I didn’t know how to write a nonfiction proposal, so I learned, thanks to my friend Leslie Wilson. And in a few weeks I had a proposal for him.
A few days after handing that in, he told me of another opportunity for a devotional for moms. “I need the proposal by Monday,” he said. This was Friday. So I bucked up and wrote it. That next month, I signed two book contracts, both nonfiction, one for Ordinary Mom, Extraordinary God (a devotional for moms) and Building the Christian Family You Never Had. But the fiction inside me would not die. It hollered at me as I went to bed, beckoned me to the keyboard.
I started a new novel about a girl who needed a hero to rescue her from sexual abuse. By now my agent had become a publisher, and I had a new agent. She shopped Watching the Tree Limbs everywhere, and every single house rejected it, particularly because of the subject matter. Meanwhile, I wrote nonfiction. A year later, a new senior editor (Rachelle Gardner, who is now an agent at Books and Such) emerged at NavPress, just as they were launching a fiction line. She remembered my book, asked for it, read it in a weekend, then offered a two-book contract.
In the middle of all this writing, my family moved to France as church planting missionaries. I felt like all my dreams were either dying or on hold. It took an act of sheer will to move there, knowing my writing dream might suffer. Thankfully, in retrospect, God used those two-and-a-half years to deepen my faith, give me great fodder for stories, and remind me that He is in control of my writing.
I’m stateside now, having traditionally published fourteen books (6 fiction, 8 nonfiction). I also self-published a writing book, The 11 Secrets of Getting Published, and just this year published The Quarryman’s Wife, the first novel I wrote.
Looking back over my journey, here are 7 things I learned:
- Discipline and tenacity are very important.
- Don’t despise small beginnings. Everyone has to start somewhere.
- When someone asks you to do something, don’t think of excuses why you can’t; figure out how to do it and deliver.
- Be open to God moments, particularly in relationships.
- Be generous with your knowledge of writing and publishing.
- Learn to settle your calling. Rejection gets harder, not easier, the longer you’re in the business.
- Be willing to change directions. Listen to professionals. They can see things you can’t.
It’s been an amazing journey the past twenty years. Looking back, I can clearly see God’s sovereign, tender plan as I’ve pursued that dream that birthed when my daughter came hollering into the world. I’m now a mom of three, an author of over a dozen books, and I’m living the dream of writing full time.