It’s been years since I’ve come across Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers, and it was a great guide in my very early career. Before I even knew that is what I was building. I decided to give freelance writing a go when I was in university, as a job I could do on the side and because I loved to write from a very early age. When I was a teen, I even penned a few book manuscripts. Of course none of them have seen the light of day since, and I think none of them were actually finished completely. The closest I got was about 80% done, but I didn’t have the courage to follow through and try to get them published. Maybe one day I’ll dig them out again and have a good laugh at my earliest writing attempts. Even though the countless hours behind a computer, while I should have been doing homework, did not lead to a published book it did hone my writing skills. As I went into University a better writer than my average peers, I thought I could at least try and pick up some work. Hope’s newsletter was a real help and a staple in my inbox. I’ve picked up a few jobs thanks to it, and small jobs always lead to bigger and better things. This became instrumental in my own journey of leaving research and finding my path in the scholarly publishing landscape.
Hope and I stayed in touch a little bit over the years, and I’ve admired her publishing track record. She is the bonafide book writer I’ve never quite become, and when I had a chance to interview her after she published her latest book, I jumped at it!
Being a writer is on many people’s list of dreams, but it’s a tough gig and not everyone ‘makes’ it. Defining for yourself what ‘making’ it actually means first is a good first step. For all the next steps in the process, Hope gives us some of her wisdom:
- Diving right into the meat of things, tell us a bit about when you first realized you wanted to be a writer? Was there a gradual process or do you remember one moment in particular that something just sparked?
Both, actually. I have always written. I was copyeditor of the high school yearbook, then editor. I loved any test in school that was essay-related because I knew I could nail it. However, I am heavily left-brained and pursued a career in the sciences, specifically agriculture. Yet, even in that environment, items needed writing. Loan justifications, court cases, personnel support. Every promotion I ever received was heavily steeped in my writing abilities (along with the promotions of a lot of friends who realized I could write).
Ultimately, I moved into upper management, yet, whenever anything had to go to Washington DC, I was tasked to write it. A peer asked when I was going to write for myself and a HUGE light went on (the one moment you mentioned). I adored mystery, actually did minor investigations for my agency, and had married a federal agent who’d been assigned a case where I’d been offered a bribe. (The basis for Lowcountry Bribe.) I obviously had material to work from, so why not? Took me a few years to figure out the mechanics of fiction. Took me three years to identify the necessary traits of earning a living as a writer before I set up a plan to leave federal service and write full-time. That and I had the sense to know I needed healthcare insurance, so I waited until I could apply for early retirement. . . at age 46. I created a plan. I didn’t go into this lightly. I also wanted to find peace of mind in a new phase of my life.
- Once you’re on the path to growing your writing career, how did you approach the business of developing yourself as a writer?
In my opinion, a surprising number of people decide to grow a writing career before they have developed themselves as a writer. You learn how to write before you leap into the profession. But I wrote my first novel, pitched it to many agents, and after several dozen rejections, decided maybe I wasn’t a fiction author. So then I pursued freelance. I loved writing that much. Freelance is more of a left-brain challenge, and I understood I needed a brand, a quality product, and a pristine work ethic. Plus I could write nonfiction ten times faster.
I studied Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Market, and pitched, pitched, pitched. I learned how to recognize a story in the blink of an eye and quickly turn it into a query before the idea got stale. I worked hard to hone a writer’s eye, noting anything in my path worthy of a magazine or website feature (pre-blog days). For instance, I once met a salesman at my front door, noticed his mistakes in his delivery, closed the door after he left, and pitched a story to a magazine about knowing your customer before opening your mouth. Sold it in 30 minutes. It was that spot-on.
I spent four years freelancing and developing FundsforWriters. It was a slow and steady process and a daily effort that I loved. When I was still at the federal job, I worked 20 hours a week at writing. When I went full-time, I worked 50. Took me three years part-time to show a profit, and once I went full-time, it took me two years to make minimum wage. Each year, however, I studied how to improve my pitching, writing, and branding. There’s a huge learning curve in this business, and success might be right around the corner, so you cannot get depressed and quit.
But it wasn’t until I was asked by a local bookstore to pick up an author at the airport and have dinner with her before her signing, did I have that bigger light pop on. She wrote mystery and asked what I wrote for myself. I told her about the mystery I never could sell, and she told me to pull it back out. A writer had to have their dream to pursue. I did. Dumbfounded at how bad it was, I tossed it (it had sat on the shelf for four years). All my freelancing had improved my skills more than I realized. However, I needed none of those old bad habits to reappear, so I rewrote the book from scratch. It ultimately became Lowcountry Bribe.
- You’ve had an exciting career in agriculture, which on the surface seems quite different from being a professional writer. Making the transition to write fulltime, are there any skills or experiences you’ve developed in your previous job that have helped you?
Organization, without a doubt. I was an agricultural loan officer on several levels, then administrative director of the agency in my state. People ask how I accomplish all I do, and I fully believe it’s from having to juggle so much in my managerial days. I was a staunch advocate of The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard (originally self-published, by the way), which streamlined how I planned my days. I loved reading books on management, ever seeking to be more efficient. I guess some of all that stuck when I went freelance.
Also, I learned how to query. How to present myself to higher-ups. How to think on my feet when approached. Even how to speak. I did all that in my agricultural world. While I disliked my job in its final years, I cannot deny the skill set it engrained in me.
- Looking back now, do you think your writing had been different if you would not have had your other professional career first?
My agriculture background, experiences, and investigations helped form the stories in my head for my fiction. Without that career, I would not have nearly the wealth of story ideas. I gained a sense of professionalism in that other career along with the story ideas, too. As much as I wish I’d started writing out of high school (I turned down a scholarship to journalism school), I accept the fact that life’s experiences mold us and teach us maturity in how we approach our life’s choices. There’s not an experience in our life that hasn’t contributed to our thought processes, our impression of the world, both which form our stories. And if we can learn business skills somewhere along the way, then all the better. Everything matters.
- Do you draw from your previous professional experience in your stories, or in any nonfiction writing you might have done?
Carolina Slade is all me from my past life. She might be a little more daring, but knowing my limitations helped me invent the extra oomph she needed in her world. When writers ask me about starting as a writer later in life, and whether it’s worth it, I just smile and tell them there is never a wrong time to write. Write while employed at that brainless job that puts food on the table. Write young, write old. Who cares? This is one of few professions that allows anyone at any stage to show their worth and break out. All of my previous days, months, and years, doing whatever I was doing, added to the depth and breadth of my current writing. And every single failure or shortcoming has also enriched me deeply. I never see time doing anything as wasted. And I always try to see time as an investment so that I do not throw it away.
- From your perspective, what advice would you give others who have an idea for a book they’d like to write?
Quit talking about it. Write it. Never brag about what you’re writing, or how you’re going to become a writer, or how you’re going to publish when in reality you don’t have three chapters on the paper. Writing is about the doing. Personally, I think talking too much about your book dilutes its passion in the writer.
You have to write a lot of trash to find the gold, and even be willing to write the book as hard as you can and then after feedback, throw it away and start over. I mean delete it. You will be so much richer in your skills for it. My first novel will never see the light of day for good reason. That’s thousands of words.
Read a lot in your genre, and make sure you are reading good books. Study writing. Learn enough to recognize your weaknesses. Be able to clearly articulate your strengths.
I have a saying I fully believe in: Read ten times more than you write. Write ten times more than you save. Save ten times more than you publish. When I preach that in classes or presentations, someone inevitably gasps. Yep. . . you have to invest yourself in improvement, and sometimes that means being daring.
So, let’s say you finally write the entire book. Don’t read it for a month or two while at the same time send it out for feedback from people who are serious readers or writers (forget family, seriously). Then beat it up with your own edits. If you don’t know grammar or style, then learn it. You don’t hire editors to teach you this stuff. Then decide if it’s worth hiring an editor to beat it up more. You have to be relentless in honing your skills. You cannot unpublish a bad book. If this sounds too difficult or too boring, or you’re too impatient to go through all of that, then please do not publish. You will most assuredly regret premature publishing.
- When your first book was finished, how did that feel? And for that matter, did you have a distinct moment that you thought, “now it’s done”, or was there a desire to keep polishing and editing it?
I’ve never felt a book was totally done. I continue to edit that first book to this day. Currently I read into Talking Books, a program for the blind and incapacitated established by the National Library. I read my books into their audio system for the blind to check out for free from any library. Four of my books are in the system, with more coming. When I read Lowcountry Bribe, I saw so many things I would’ve changed.
Even today, when I teach from my novels, or do a reading, I want to rewrite. There’s such a blurred line between re-editing and submitting a book. I don’t believe you can edit too much. I just don’t.
However, there is relief when I send in a manuscript, but also trepidation as to whether it’s ready. There’s thrill when the book comes out, but also fear that mistakes will be noted or opinions forthcoming about how I should’ve done something different. I guess there is never THE END to any of my books.
- Any tips for finding an agent, or whether to go the self publishing route?
I could talk about this for an entire day. This is as personal as finding a spouse or choosing a doctor. However, I preach that if you do not fully understand both sides, and I mean intimately, then you cannot make the right decision. What are the pros and cons of agents? Why is self-publishing better than traditional? If it’s so good, why do so many authors still traditionally publish? You must find these answers for yourself to decide how to publish.
A bad agent is worse than no agent, but a good agent can open doors. A New York publisher can offer you a $20,000 advance, but if you don’t sell through that advance with sales, you get dumped and may struggle finding another publisher. Good and bad to traditional.
You can spend $5,000 on self-publishing and sell 75 books because you didn’t prep with a marketing plan. Or you can find a niche, find 100 fans, and stand making money with indie ebooks. But you have to understand the reasons why.
What is your long-term goal for writing? Do you have to have a certain income? Are you willing to lose money for the first five or six or more books with self-publishing?
Or are you more willing to land a traditional small or mid-sized press (not a garage press started by an author still publishing their own books)? Maybe a reputable hybrid? Do you even know how to identify a vanity press?
Learn how to talk the talk. Educate yourself on all aspects of all publishing options. This is the business side of things that most creative types want to pass off to someone else. When you neglect to learn the details, you set yourself up for a fall. However, once you are fully educated, then own whichever one you choose. Do not look back. Because to second-guess yourself short-changes your success. OWN YOUR CHOICES.
- What are your views on the publishing industry as it stands today. We’ve had some conversations through various mediums before about fair pay for writers, and this ties in with your Fundsforwriters newsletter as well. Is the future bright, or are you concerned for novice writers entering the industry?
The Internet is a Catch 22 for writers. While it aids delivery of manuscripts and makes correspondence prompt, it also tempts those not quite ready to flood markets with immature work. Everyone thinks if they can put words to paper that it’s publishable, which has hurt writers in multiple ways.
First, it’s inundated markets with bad work, making for lag times, and even decreasing chances for publication simply from the weariness of the editors hunting through mountains of slush piles for good work.
Second, it’s decreased everyone’s income. With so many overly eager writers wanting to publish for any amount, the overall income has dropped substantially. If a magazine can get by with paying $25 for a 2,500-word article and get halfway decent work rather than pay $250 to a more seasoned writer, why not? Cheaper to take the lesser article and edit it up to standards. Same goes for advances for books. For example, when FundsforWriters started 20 years ago, a professional writer earned 50 cents a word. Today, 20 cents is more the norm, with 10 cents the standard for so, so many. It’s sad.
The future is bright in terms of options, but payment is down, so the industry has turned into more of a quantity-driven profession. It’s why we have authors putting out shorter, more light-weight books, at the pace of four or five a year. The internet has everyone wanting fast reads to match faster lifestyles. After all, an amazing number of readers today read on their phones between appointments.
However, the internet has us able to reach more publishers, experience more authors, and promote ourselves more than ever before. The opportunity is endless in terms of markets and readers. It’s just there is more competition, more noise, so many options that it’s difficult to be heard and seen in the fray. You have to be smart and diligent. You cannot just put a book out there and see if it sells. Trust me, it won’t.
- With the above in mind, is there ever any merit in doing ‘work for free’ for someone trying to break into the industry?
Because so many writers are overly eager to publish, they’ll sell their soul and write for free for that so-called exposure. That’s an age-old gimmick that will continue to bait and pull in those who either don’t rely on writing for an income or will do anything to be published. If someone pitches me and they’ve only appeared on sites that did not pay, I question their motivation, and I feel badly giving them work when there’s competition right beside them who’s dug down deep and written for paying markets. Problem is, most paying publication don’t give a darn about a resume of nonpaying experience, making that “exposure” worth little. (The literary world is different, and an animal all its own.) Those ads for exposure are bait. Respect yourself and walk past them. When you think you are ready to publish, then ask for pay. If you feel sheepish about asking for pay, then improve your writing until you are sure you’re worth the payment.
- What can we expect to see coming down the pipeline from you?
My eighth mystery comes out the end of April, my ninth the end of December or first of January. I have a third series I’d love to start, and my publisher is interested, so there’s the potential of another book contract in the making.
There was a close call with a cable TV production company last year for my novels, and there might still be something in the mill in the future.
I keep saying I’ll write books for FundsforWriters, but I do not enjoy self-publishing, having done it a few times. I would love to do courses, but the work of FundsforWriters newsletters, two novel series, appearances, and the periodic freelance assignment keep me swamped! I do not want to burn out.
I once sat on a panel with two ridiculously well-known authors – one indie and the other traditional – and the subject of commitment came around from the audience. “What does it take?” someone asked, in other words, meaning, “How can we be like y’all?” The literary author never really answered it other than saying read a lot, write a lot. He taught creative writing at a university. The six-figure indie author said she breathed her work 24/7, and from what I know of her, she does. She was incessantly hungry for achievement. However, I have grown children, grandchildren, raise chickens, adore my dachshunds, garden a large plot, and thoroughly love a husband whom I cherish spending time with. And I told the room that they have to find that balance and choose who they’d rather be like….or better yet, how they’d love to see themselves a few years from now, on their own terms.
So, I put in my 40-50 hours each week writing, making sure I do not neglect the other side of my world that keeps me human and healthy. When I die, I don’t want to look back and consider myself neglectful nor overindulgent, but I do want to feel good about the balance I maintained.