It goes without saying that many authors follow unorthodox paths in life, not necessarily beginning in writing. J.K. Rowling was working for Amnesty International when she came up with the idea of boy-wizard Harry Potter. Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney dreamed of being a newspaper cartoonist. Even Maurice Sendak, who famously penned Where the Wild Things Are, spent several years illustrating children’s books before he began writing his own.
Melanie (Andres) Conklin ‘00, who recently signed a six-figure, two-book deal with Penguin/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, is now a member of this club of authors who found their niche, to their own surprise, in the world of storytelling. Counting Thyme – about a young girl whose family moves across the country to treat her brother’s cancer – will be her first published work.
Ever since she was a child, Conklin had a passion for drawing and reading.
“I really liked creative problem-solving and, for me, the design school offered all of that,” said Conklin. “We worked in studios, we worked in teams, and product design was fascinating because I could use my skills to make real things in the world.”
Following graduation, Conklin spent several years working for consultancies. Companies would bring in objectives for a new product, and she and other designers would research and determine what that product should look like. Conklin has had a hand in designing everything from toothbrushes to breast pumps to pens and staplers.
It wasn’t until she quit her last job in product design to stay at home with her children that writing became a possibility.
“I woke up with this idea for a story,” said Conklin. “I knew how I would start it, and it was while my baby was napping that I literally just started writing it. About six weeks later, I was like, ‘I think I’m writing a book.’”
Conklin began researching the craft of writing and the publishing world. She discovered a vast network of resources and potential critique partners to hone her early writings.
“The story for Counting Thyme evolved quite quickly after that. Once I tapped into an idea that I cared about, the story flowed, which meant I had something say about the subject as a writer,” said Conklin.
For Conklin, as both a writer and an avid reader, a story’s bricks-and-mortar lies with the character and the authenticity of their strife. During Counting Thyme’s genesis, Conklin read several books in which the protagonist suffered an illness. She envisioned a new approach to this theme that would speak to kids.
“I thought to myself, that’s horrible, but what would it be like to be a sibling of a child facing a life-threatening disease,” said Conklin. “I thought that would also be a struggle, a real conflict of interest, because you would love your sibling but you would also have to make so many sacrifices.”
When delving into this topic for her book, Conklin became engaged in social networking. She developed her own blog and began attending conventions like BookCon. As a result, she established relationships with other writers across a variety of genres.
These connections became the springboard to landing her book deal.
A friend of Conklin’s pitched her book through an Emerging Writers contest on Twitter.
“She had read it and was excited about it, so she was like, ‘You guys have to read this book,’” Conklin said.
Several agents contacted Conklin. She queried the eight agents with whom she was most interested in working, and her now-agent Peter Knapp of the Park Literary Group got back to her immediately.
“The big secret about getting into publishing is to write a good book. Write about something you care about. Get people curious, and they will want to read your story,” said Conklin.
According to Conklin, her initiative is rooted in the encouragement and resources she garnered as a Park Scholar.
“Coming from the first class of Park Scholars, we really got to lead ourselves because no one else had done it before. I would say that has seriously influenced everything I’ve done in my life, because the Park Scholarships program was an opportunity to take my ideas and put them into action,” Conklin said.
Conklin and Park Scholarships classmate Tommy Vitolo ‘00 started Service Raleigh, an annual event that has grown to include more than 2,000 volunteers and generates approximately 6,000 hours of community service each year to benefit residents of the greater Raleigh area.
“It was a real learning experience, but that’s what the Park Scholarship gave me – a belief that if I had an idea, and I thought it was worthwhile, that if I worked hard, I could make it a reality,” said Conklin. “I think that absolutely has something to do with allowing myself to explore writing and see what I could do.”
Conklin is currently making final revisions to Counting Thyme with her editor, Stacey Barney. She anticipates completing this process in early 2015, and publishing the book in 2016. In the coming months, Conklin will begin the second book in her contract. She is also exploring other projects and genres to tackle in the future.
“It’s definitely been a really surprising and gratifying ride,” said Conklin. “I love books and stories so much that the idea of children, and other readers who love books, reading my work and finding a sentence that they might want to highlight is a dream come true.”
Story by Lauren Vanderveen