Monday, September 29, 2014

Guest Blogger C. Hope Clark on Why Writing What You Know Doesn’t Mean You Know How to Write

Like many writers, I imagine, I get several newsletters intended to help me write and market work. Some I barely read. Others I keep in a separate, long term file on my computer. I may not read them the day they arrive, but these are the ones I want on hand, and comb them for opportunities and insight. C. Hope Clark's Funds for Writers is one of these. I've found many excellent tips in her pages, and she's impressed me as one of the most sincere, generous, and supportive folks in the writing world.
This week, Hope's newest novel, Murder on Edisto (Bell Bridge Books) debuts, joining her previous series, the Carolina Slade Mysteries. It's set in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a place she considers her second home.  Hope is still editor of FundsforWriters, which has a seemingly perennial place on Writer’s Digest Books' 101 Best Websites for Writers. Her newsletters reach 40,000 readers.

Please welcome C. Hope Clark

When I worked for the federal government, I was once offered a bribe. As required, I called in the badges and guns, and the agents roped me into the investigation as the Cooperating Individual (CI).  Yet even after the hidden recorders, cameras, and memorized scripts, we never charged the guy since he could not produce the money. However, as the case dragged on, I became friends with one of the agents. Once the case was shelved, we dated. A couple years later, we married. Okay. Go ahead and say it. “Awww, what a great story! You ought to write a book.” Heck, why not, right?
Eight years later, frustrated at my federal job and eager to write seriously, I thought, “Why not give that novel a try?” With a politician boss, I’d spun words for years. If I could write government fiction, how hard could it be to write mystery fiction? Especially when the story was grounded in my own real-life case.

            As it turned out, harder than I thought. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

            After two years, I finished a manuscript. My mother was friends with Fern Michaels (yes, THAT Fern Michaels, the 50-time New York Times best-selling author with a kajillion copies of mysteries and thrillers in print). Fern offered to pass the manuscript on to an agent, which I later recognized was probably a polite gesture directed at my mother. The agent wrote back with a polite refusal. I still have the note Fern sent afterwards, commending me on completing the novel, and how I ought to be proud at that achievement in itself.


            Throwing the hard-copy manuscript on a closet shelf, I redirected myself to commercial nonfiction, to better use my natural left brain talents. Over the next four years, my efforts turned into clips, with freelance articles in both Writer’s Digest and The Writer Magazine, and eventually I founded the newsletter, FundsforWriters, in which I used my government knowledge to define myself.  Then a local bookstore owner asked me to pick up a mystery author from her hotel and bring her to a book signing at the shop.

I was gobsmacked, meeting someone who’d accomplished what I’d once dreamed of;  as was the waiter who stumbled all over himself asking for her autograph on his copy of her latest that he’d run down and purchased between our main course and dessert. Then once the doting subsided, the author asked what I wrote. I told her of my freelance work.

“No,” she said. “What do you write for you?”

“Oh,” I replied, a bit red-faced. “I once wrote this mystery. But it didn’t go anywhere.”

She stared at me with an all-knowing smile. “Pull it out,” she said. “Otherwise in ten or twenty years you’ll kick yourself for not giving it another try.”

So I went home that evening and gingerly retrieved the manuscript box. I was struck dumb on the first page. “Oh my God, this sucks!”

The story was still decent, but it seems that after four years of freelancing, I’d learned to recognize marginal writing.

Re-energized, I saved the outline and tossed the manuscript, toiling long and hard with rewrites, contest entries, and agent and publisher queries. After two years, the effort paid off. I’ve published four mysteries now, but Lowcountry Bribe (Bell Bridge Books, 2012)  will remain near and dear to me forever. The book everyone said I ought to write, had finally been written.

I recall my first reading at a conference, when Lowcountry Bribe was two months’ published. Four of us read: a young adult author, a poet, and a literary review editor, and I went last. Heart hammering, I selected a scene where the bribe was offered, and the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, each reading the other’s mind about what their back and forth innuendo really meant: a crooked deal.

Halfway through, I sensed the room go silent, people standing still around the hors d’ oeuvres table. But I read on, nervous. Finally, hands still white-knuckled on the book, I finished. The room erupted in applause.

The literary review editor approached me as I stepped down from the stage. “That was excellent,” he said.

Still jittery, I smiled and thanked him. “This is my first published fiction,” I said, clutching my book. “I’ve always written commercially.”

He shook his head with a grin. “Doesn’t matter what you’ve written,” he said. “You’ve put in the time, and it shows in your work. That was good.”
           Tears filled my eyes as he turned away. The years in between my first and second manuscripts, while I hadn’t written mysteries, I had indeed kept writing. And unexpectedly I’d grown in the process, every word a step up the ladder.

Writing what you know is important, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Knowing how to write it means so much more, and sometimes that only comes with putting one word in front of the other. To this day, I write every day to oil the machine, because when the next great idea comes along, I want to be primed, warmed up, and ready to go.

Note from Lisa: Hope will be stopping by the blog for several days to answer questions via comments. She's also giving away a signed copy of any one of her books (including Murder on Edisto) to one random blog reader; leave your comment before midnight on Saturday, October 11.

Connect with Hope on Facebook and Twitter.


Hope Clark said...

Thanks for having me as guest, Lisa. I'm really excited about Murder on Edisto's release, and hope your readers enjoyed the post. Funny where life takes you.

Anonymous said...

I have written a little over 1500 words of my first novel and haven't been able to take it any further. My freelance work is all-consuming, my home office is more of a distraction than a help, and I am at a loss for what to write daily. I had hoped that my recent relocation would refuel me. Instead, I have lost my muses. But I am still hopeful.

Gina Evans said...

Hope, you inspire me. Thank you.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, your journey is a fascinating one.

drew said...

Hope, thanks for sharing your writing & publishing path with us. What books, courses, or programs in the murder mystery genre would you recommend to a new novelist?

PoCoKat said...

Great post! Murder on Edisto was fabulous!

Hope Clark said...

PoCoKat - thanks SOOO much! Loved writing that book with such a fresh new voice.

Drew - Gosh, not sure what to tell you. I learned by reading good mysteries and choosing the strengths of those novelists to learn from. Lee Child for action. Sue Grafton for plotting. Evanovich for pacing (I like writing tight). And especially Lisa Gardner, my favorite. But reading the great stuff is the best way to learn. also I belong to Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and keep up with their activities, courses, conferences and learn from them.

I also swear by Fiction University and Janice Hardy - she can talk the details of writing good fiction (all genre). I use her advice when I'm creating my own presentations and classes.

Hope Clark said...


Just write each day on your fiction. We all get sluggish sometimes. But show up and pound out 1000 words, maybe less. There's a site called that might help you. You might also try outlining the book. While I used to be a pantser, I'm leaning more toward outlining now because it improves my progress.

Lisa Romeo said...

The winner of the book of choice from Hope is
Melissa Crockett-Studio Sixpence
Please contact me via email with your postal address and book choice. (email address in left column of blog).

Thanks all for reading and leaving a comment.
- Lisa