Mystery author C. Hope Clark is well known within the writing world for her mystery novels and very successful Funds For Writers website and newsletter. In fact, FFW is listed as one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers and continues to be atop resource for new and established writers seeking paid writing gigs.
With her many years of experience, we know our readers will gain a great deal from Hope’s many helpful insights and advice on writing, publishing, and book promotion. If you haven’t discovered her mystery novels yet, you’ll definitely want to dive in! Welcome, Hope!
Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure
Welcome, Hope. Perhaps you could start off by telling us about your books.
Mystery is magic to me. The craft of pitting author against reader, with the author carving their story such that they hope the reader is surprised at the end, not seeing what’s coming, versus the reader avowing to figure it out. Mysteries are my favorite to read, and therefore, my favorite to write. Published by Bell Bridge Books, my eleven novels are in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series (five) and the Edisto Island Mysteries (six), all set in real life settings in South Carolina.
Both have strong female protagonists. Carolina Slade investigates for the US Department of Agriculture, pursuing rural crimes that urban dwellers cannot fathom. Callie Jean Morgan is the police chief for the tiny tourist community of Edisto Beach, on the jungle-laden Lowcountry on the South Carolina coast. The stories get thicker and deeper with each release, and readers have come to love the returning characters as well as the new ones that appear in each book.
In April 2021, we plan to release the seventh Edisto Island Mystery, titled Reunion on Edisto. But later in the year, we intend to release books one and two in a third series, the Sterling Banks Mysteries, this time involving a strong female PI who also happens to be “the remaining heir of the oldest family in the oldest county in South Carolina.” She inherits the family 3,000-acre pecan enterprise, and while maintaining the huge farm, she takes on selected cases, often involving her two childhood buddies – one a local deputy and the other the foreman on her farm.
I love that your series and characters continue to grow and develop. Tell me, where do you get your story lines and character profiles?
A handful of characters are molded after people I know, like Sophie Bianchi in the Edisto Island Mysteries. She is a real yoga instructor on Edisto Beach. (Yes, it’s a real place.) Savannah Conroy is similar to a close friend in the Slade mysteries. Carolina Slade performs duties I used to perform with the federal government, and since I married a federal agent, Wayne Largo might be loosely akin to him. But the vast majority are just made up people who serve the story’s needs and accent the characteristics I need to make the protagonist look one way or another.
The story lines, however, are a combination of my experiences as an internal affairs investigator and my husband’s cases. But half of the books are simply composites of what he and I have witnessed and heard of or flat made up to be feasible. Since I believe setting ought to be a character in books, the sense of place often helps direct or emphasize the crime. Reunion on Edisto, for instance, is about a high school group planning a 25-year reunion, only they are all coping with the death of two classmates that occurred during their senior year. I know of two classmates who died from my own class, and while I did not write their story, their deaths catapulted me into this story about loss of classmates to murder and suicide. So . . . you write what you know, make up what you need to, and gather what you see. In truth, stories are mostly about living life with your eyes wide open to capture what to write.
That bit of your background and your husband’s is interesting. What research do you do for each book?
I visit the places. I believe in using real places, except in the third series, in which I create a fictitious county out of a real area. I carve it out of two other counties and use the real rivers, towns, highways, etc. So I research place.
If I need law enforcement research, I go through my husband. If he doesn’t know, he knows people who do. The Carolina Slade material often comes from my past, and I know where online to look, or who to talk to.
But I do not research until I reach a spot in the book where I need to. Setting and characters come first, to me. Then the plot. The details that need research are acquired along the way, either in person, interviews, or online. I just do not believe in researching a book to death, though, and too many novice authors never finish or even start a book for doing too much research. I just do it as needed.
Besides your books you have another very successful venture. Tell us about Funds For Writers.
FundsforWriters is a website and newsletter that directs writers to resources to earn a living. It was founded to emphasize to writers that they are doing themselves and the writing community an injustice writing for free. We post grants, contests, markets, publishers, and jobs with calls for submissions in a weekly newsletter. We post about 24-28 opportunities each week. The readership numbers 26,000, and the website has been labeled Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers for 20 years as of this year. I am a writer’s advocate.
I’ve long been a follower and admirer of that platform. Tell us, what is your goal with FFW?
The original goal was to find markets and contests for myself, and use my research to earn a little money with the newsletter. I started back when there were only three writing newsletters, actually. But it soon grew, and it became my brand. Then years later, I returned to my fiction, my first love, and used my reach obtained from FFW to find readers. I found my own publisher through FFW research, as a matter of fact, and gave it to my agent, who I later discarded when I learned I could pave my own way from all I’d learned from years of FFW.
What common mistakes do you think new writers make?
Publishing too fast. Not honing the craft before trying to publish. Because you write something does not mean it’s publish-worthy. A lot of words need to be written and discarded before you publish, and that means for short stories, novels, copywriting, script-writing, any type of writing. Be willing to throw words away. Be willing to be critiqued. Be willing to accept that your first words are crap.
Writers often do not research the markets or publishers they are submitting to. Almost memorize them. Pitch to markets that want what you have to offer. Half or more of the submissions I receive do not fit FFW, so I have to believe that agents, publishers, and editors endure the same lazy submissions. So many wrong submissions like that are much of the reason that many sources do not send rejection letters. They’d need a fulltime person to do so, and that person would be nothing more than an expense. The more precise you are in your submissions, the more likely you’ll receive a reply.
That’s great advice! So what do you struggle with in your own writing or writing career?
Not writing faster. I’m not a book-a-month writer. I prefer writing 80-100K words in a story, much like I like to read them. I want to invest in a long story, and those aren’t written overnight. I also struggle writing a short story. I don’t enjoy reading most shorts because of the endings, so I’m never satisfied with my attempts to give a solid beginning, middle, and ending to something only a couple thousand words.
Do you have any advice for getting paid writing gigs that you’d like to share?
Create a solid website and quit writing for free. When I hire someone to write for FFW (I purchase 52 pieces a year at $60 for 600 words) and the submitter has only published for free, I am inclined to turn them down. Same goes for someone without a blog or website. As a publication paying for content, I am counting on that writer I pay to further distribute the link and garner me additional readers. If a writer cannot help me in that regard, I’m inclined to reject. There are so many markets out there paying, and to shortchange yourself by writing for free because you don’t “think” you are good enough to be paid for it, makes me question whether the work is worthy of purchase or the writer is sure enough of themselves to give me a good product. Writers and publishers have a give and take relationship. Nothing is one way. Respect yourself by only writing for paid markets. In FFW, I won’t post anything that pays less than 10 cents/word unless it is scifi/fantasy, which considers professional rate to be 6 cents/word. As you’ve probably figured out, FFW is a tough-love entity, but my readers adore it.
What are your thoughts on self vs trad publishing?
Too difficult to answer. What are your goals short term, mid-term, and long-term? If you want to self-publish, then be willing to sink serious money into the editing, formatting, cover, AND promotion. Be willing to put in tons of marketing time. So many people try to claim that traditional does no marketing for its authors, and they are wrong. Just the simple reach and distribution of traditional is so much further. I have done both. I self-published several nonfiction/how-to books and I’m traditionally published for my fiction. I do not care to self-publish my fiction. And having done both, I can honestly say that I get to spend more time writing with traditional than with self-publishing. But a lot depends on how much control you want, how savvy your marketing talent, and how much investment you can make up front.
In traditional, while you contract with the publisher, they make their money on numbers of books sold. In self-publishing, they make their money from the authors paying to be published . . . not the number of books sold. Ponder that and be willing accept their allegiance in both cases.
Either way, you better be in it for the long haul. A writer will struggle making any sort of money until they’ve written a half dozen books or more, and even then, it won’t be serious money. You have to build a following and be willing to write consistently to feed their hunger or they move on to another author. There are too many good books and authors out there for an author to write one or two books and watch to see how they do. You’ll be quickly forgotten.
Can you talk about some publishing scams you’ve seen recently? What should new writers watch for?
Anyone asking to publish you is a red flag. There are too many awesome writers out there knocking on publishing doors for publishers to seek them out. Those asking for your work are also asking for your money.
Get a contract or at least an email confirmation for articles, and a detailed contract for a book that you have an agent or attorney review. I’ve helped more authors try to get out of a bad deal than I care to think about. Sometimes I tell them to forget that book or article and just move on to write another. Just like it is easier to get married than divorced, it’s much easier to sign a contract than get out of one. Get another set of knowledgeable eyes on that contract, and talk to others with experience with the contract provider.
Do you have any advice on being taken seriously as a writer?
Take yourself seriously first. I can smell an author who does not take themselves seriously. Agents, publishers, and editors can, too, and they have zero time to work with someone who is nervous and constantly questioning themselves (or the publisher). I have been asked, “What do I do to quit feeling nervous about submitting?” I say to submit or quit. Others say, “How can I make myself write? I just don’t feel the desire.” Again, I say write or quit. The feeling part is not part of the equation. This is a business, people. Would you hire a nervous contractor, attorney, doctor, or tutor? No. You want someone confident in what they do, because you’re paying them to be confident in fulfilling your needs.
Also, read ALL instructions or guidelines and follow them religiously. Edit religiously. Be prompt. Beat deadlines. Show that you take your job personally and that you are reliable. I want my publisher or editor to love seeing emails from me, because my submission means less work for them than the average submission. Make them want you.
What under and over estimations do you see new writers making?
In terms of gigs, assuming you know more than the employer in terms of what they want, the word count, or any other specs in the job, is dangerous. As someone who purchases articles, I look at the subject first and word count second. When it exceeds 650 by more than 10-20 words, I do not even read it. Some have even told me that the article needed to be longer because the information was so critical. Well, so is my space in the publication, and it happens to be 650 words. As a new writer, just do what you are told (i.e., follow guidelines) to get your foot in the door. You write for a living. They publish for a living. Don’t pretend you know better than they do about their needs and desires.
As for books, do not think the first book is THE book, and that the fact you wrote something book-length means it is worth being a book. Especially in a first or second book, a writer will grow exponentially from page 1 to THE END, meaning you need to start over and start rewriting to make the amateur first part as mature as the ending. And you know what? You will grow again, and will need to repeat yet again.
This is also called developing a voice. There is no how-to book on developing voice. It comes from tons of writing and lots of effort to improve with each word that goes on the page. As for overestimating, I do not believe the grand majority of writers can over-edit. That usually happens with more seasoned writers, and even then, it is rare. Just put the thought out of your head. Edit until it shines.
So many writers struggle with marketing and promotion. I’m sure any advice you have would be welcome.
First, work darn hard on your online presence. COVID has made the world realize that the action is now online. Be active in some sort of social media. Not all of it, but one or two of them. Give away enough review copies, but don’t become a K-mart special by selling your work free or cheap, because that is how you will be embedded into someone’s mind. Be worthy of being paid for. Sometimes that takes time. But if you invest your free books into review copies, you gain notoriety sooner. I give away 30-40 books for reviews with each new release, sometimes more. And I check back in after a month to see if they received the book and if they are enjoying it. If someone keeps your book and doesn’t review it, don’t make the mistake of offering them another review with another book later. (But don’t argue with them either. Accept the loss.)
Guest blog. When I go on a blog tour, which I create myself through research, I post 20-40 guest pieces in under a month. Topics? Whatever the blog owner wishes. Like markets, research the blog to know its needs, and if the owner doesn’t post or tell you their needs, interpret it from the blog itself. Show you respect their work.
I also try to saturate my local area. I’ve gotten involved in local activities and made it known that my career was being an author. I tell them where my books are and have a quick elevator pitch for each of the two series. A local coffee shop sells my books, and in two weeks in December, that tiny shop went through 40+ books just because I posted on the town Facebook page that I had restocked signed copies of the novels at The Coffee Shelf, and that they make great gifts.
Be confident and ever working on the next opportunity. Always have another book in the works or scheduled. People binge these days. As a matter of fact, my third series is being held back until Fall 2021 until there are two books to release so that the series doesn’t have just one book on the shelf.
Never fail to own up to being a writer/author, and every time you meet someone, you have a chance to earn another reader, or even better, another fan.
You’ve given us some great insights and food for thought. So what’s next (and/or current) for you?
Three books will be released in 2021. Not sure I can keep that pace for the following years, but I will continue with at least two per year. And I will continue with FFW for as long as the readers enjoy it. When the world opens back up, if personal appearances return, I’ll be back presenting a few places a year. But I love having a publisher that will publish just about whatever mystery I wish to write. We have an excellent relationship that has taken a few years to cultivate, and I’m honored to have them in my corner. And I think they like me, too.
Thank you Hope. It’s been a true pleasure chatting with you, and we wish you every success in your future.
To find and follow Hope, click on the links below: