Interview with S.J. Clarke

It’s  MuseItUp Publishing Monday, and I’m continuing with my paranormal theme for the entire month of October. Today’s guest is S.J. Clarke, and she’ll be talking about her new book Mind Over Matter.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a wife, mother, friend and writer. The order changes depending on the day. I strive to create what I imagine most writers do – stories that touch the soul of a reader. Just one will do, for me anyway. Knowing the reader took something away with them lets me know all that hard work meant something, that it had a purpose. When I’m not writing I’m reading, or dreaming up ways to get characters into, and if I’m in a good mood, out of trouble.

What is the title of your most recent novel, and can you tell us a little bit about it?
Mind Over Matter is the story of a mother who faces her worst nightmare when she discovers her missing daughter is schedule to die.

For three years Rebecca McKenney grieved the loss of her daughter. Now, a vision showing Sabrina three years older, suggests her baby is still alive, and the FBI agent who gave up the search is the only one who can help find her. Rebecca once witnessed a psychic connection between Agent Cooper and her daughter. She only hopes their fragile bond remains – and that the coward has the decency to pursue it.

Special Agent Dan Cooper, haunted by a tragic mistake made early in the investigation, agrees to help Rebecca to ease his conscience, if nothing else. Together they fight inner demons, all too real bad guys, and an attraction neither wants to admit to. Each step closer to finding her daughter unearths wide-spread deception and an evil so vile it threatens to break Rebecca’s spirit. The thought of having her daughter back in her arms is all that keeps her going. Until she learns the horrifying truth – her daughter is scheduled to die in mere days.

When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
When did I first start writing in general, or writing this book? They’re both interesting tales.

I first started writing, after a fashion, when I was in grade two, so age six or seven. We often had show-and-tell in class. When I didn’t have anything cool to show, I’d entertain the class by telling stories. I told this one story about the day a fire started in my brothers house, and how they couldn’t get one of my nieces out in time. I painted gruesome pictures with words, right down to the spill of red stains from the flashing lights on the fire engines pooling on wet pavement. I must have done a good job because the teacher called home at recess to convey her condolences to my mom. My poor mom had to explain to her that none of it happened. When the teacher gasped, saying she couldn’t believe I’d lied, Mom just smiled. I wasn’t a liar, she said, I was a story-teller. That’s when I knew I could be a writer. I started writing a couple of years later, in grade four.
 I started Mind Over Matter, and a week and two chapters later, I realized I knew next to nothing about the craft of writing. So I put it aside and took course after course after course. I immersed myself in the writing community, vuluntered at conferences, participated in online forums, and joined a small local writing circle. I have to say, I’m extrememly fortunate to have the WCDR (Writer’s Community of Durham Region) right in my back yard. This organization has over 300 members and holds monthly breakfasts, workshops and events. I’d still be staring at blank screens wondering if I had what it takes to be a writer were it not for the WCDR. I spent three years learning the craft and building confidence. When I still couldn’t make it happen, I hired a writing coach. Six weeks later I had a finished first draft. It took three years or six-seven weeks to write this book, depending on where you start counting from.

Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?

The challenges come with not following the advice of professionals in the field who’ve been there and done that and want to help you to not make the same mistakes they did. A fool, I didn’t listen to the excellent advice I was given. I finished the first draft in June of 2010, took another course, this one on revision, and then worked on the revision through Oct. 2010. I pitched it to MuseItUp publishing that same month at their annual online conference. Here’s the kicker. It still wasn’t finished, even then. I was only halfway through the revision, but I pitched it anyway – four times. I figured it was good practice and no one would request a book from a newbie like me anyway. What was the risk? I ended up receiving four requests for the full manuscript, three from publishers, and one from a dream agent, and I had four weeks to send them in. You can imagine my panic attack!

Please don’t do this. The agent recognized the book wasn’t up to par, and I can cross her off my list of potential reps because she will never forget how I wasted her time. Your work should be revised until it shines, and if possible, have passed through the hands of a critique group before you consider submitting it anywhere. I happen to work really well under pressure, and was able to finish it and get my submissions out in six weeks, on Janurary 1, 2011. I signed my contract with Muse on February 4th, 2011. Muse was not overwhelmed with my natural story telling abilities, they had concerns, and wanted to be sure I was willing to work with an editing team to strenghthen the weak areas. Of course, I said yes, and I did, and the book is so much better because of it. But it’s never a good idea to risk your reputation like that. Now I’m starting my agent search over with a new book and a revised list of agents.

Do you have a day job/family/children, and how do you balance everything?
 I’m home full time at the moment because a contract position ended. I keep myself busy now writing, freelancing and taking on editing clients, but for the bulk of this book, I wrote around a full-time job outside of the home, a husband and two small children. As for organizing my time – first I had to figure out when my peak writing time was. It didn’t take long to realize I’m an early bird writer (not to be confused with a morning person), turning out my best work before noon. On a really good day, momentum carries me through the afternoon. Evenings are out. I have no creative juices left by that time. Writing my second book, I was still working a full time office job, so I wrote an hour a day while I ate lunch at my desk. I wrote almost the entire book in four months writing only on my lunch hours. It takes discipline, but it sure helps that I love what I do.

Balancing it all remains a challenge. Many writing related chores – two crit groups, a monthly writers group breakfast meeting, volunteer duties with two annual writers conferences, marketing & promotion – all take time away from my family and keep my butt out of my writing chair. Sometimes I’m going from morning to night on writing activities alone. It’s important for me to schedule entire days off from anything writing related to save my sanity and my relationships. I aim for one day a week. But now I’m taking another course on Editing, as I hav e a goal to start a freelance editing and proofreading business. I’m also actively buildling several writing courses of my own to teach, one of which is on goal setting and time management, coincidentally. It’s becoming more essential with every day for me to find a balance.

How did you choose the genre you write in, or did it choose you?
 I write paranormal romance, and it’s got to have an element of suspense to it. This touches all my hot buttons. It’s what I read voraciously, so it’s what I gravitate to when I write. I read a lot of urban fiction as well, and one day, I suspect I’ll try my hand at writing one. I don’t think I’ll be able to resist. I need to read more of them first though, to understand all the elements of the genre. But my passion will always be paranormal. Even in grade four, I wrote paranormal stories. And when paranormal goes out of style, I’ll still be writing them. It’s not a fad to me, but a genuine love and facination for the genre.

Where do you get your ideas?
From everywhere. This story came to me as part of a course I was taking at the time(Holly Lisle’s How To Think Sideways). The teacher asked us to each come up with a single sentence containing a protagonist, an antagonist, a need for each, an interesting setting, a conflict, and a twist – oh and it had to be thirty words or less. The result was the sentence that became the original tag line for the book. It’s been tweaked a bit since then.

I’ll share this cool technique I learned at the Savvy Author Summer Symposium this year. Anything paranormal interests me. I check my horoscope daily, 5 different ones – until I find one I lik, lol. You can see I don’t take it too seriously. When I saw a chat scheduled on plotting with Tarot cards I was intrigued. Stop laughing. It turned out it worked so well I bought my own deck. Not to tell fortunes – I have no idea what the real meaning of each card is, and that’s not the point. The instructor taught us how to use the cards for visual motivation. And boy did it work. When you’re stuck in a boring rut you pick a card and have your character/story/plot go in the direction the card says in a way that works for your storyline. I know, it sounds crazy, but it was fun! And I came away from that chat with a new twist for the sequel to Mind and a new idea for another book.

Is there any particular author or book that influenced you while you were growing up?
Believe it or not, no. I can’t place a single book that spoke to me as a child. I didn’t start reading for pleasure until I was about 12 or 13 when I’d steal away to read my mom’s historical romance novels. But to this day I credit those books with teaching me the facts of life. Does that count? Lol My mom never had to have that talk with me. And it certainly gave future boyfriends quite the standard to live up to.

But, once I started reading books of my own choosing I found some favorites. Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb tops the list. Followed by Christine Feehan, Christina Dodd, Juliana Stone, Ilona Andrews, Jayne Ann Krentz, Allyson James, Nalini Singh, and when I’m in the mood for a little – okay a lot – of spice, Shelly Laurenston. I could go on indefinitely, of course, so I’ll stop there.

Have you ever experience writer’s block?
I used to. I think though, for me, it’s more a case of lack of confidence, and/or lack of preparation. I took a lot of classes, both online and in person, and hired a writing coach for this book. I’ve since developed some habits that make writers block a thing of the past, most days anyway. I should say at this point that I am a BIG plotter, lol, which plays a big part in avoiding writers block.

Random Question #1: Light or dark chocolate?
Either, but anything over 80% cocoa doesn’t satisfy my sweet tooth. I’m partial to anything Cadbury.

Do you work from an outline, or do the characters dictate the plot (I’m a mix of both)?
For me, the hardest, yet most essential, part of writing any story is plotting. I am an extensive plotter. I need that solid foundation to work from. I might veer away from the plan now and again, but it’s there to guide me on those days when my muse hides under the covers. This is how I’m able to maintain the discipline to write every day. If I’m staring at a white screen with a blank look on my face I pull out my scene cards. There’s no excuse not to get the work done. Coming up with all the ideas for the book in one or two sittings is hard. But I use the same system my teacher taught me. I come up with some of those mega-sentences I mentioned earlier – one for each scene. All the ingredients for a perfect scene are right there on the index card. Then I just have to write it.

Do you have any tips for new authors marketing their first book?
I know some writers out there will cringe when I say this, but online media is your friend when it comes to marketing your books. We’re an e-society now, as much as we might hate to admit it. Traditional marketing is expensive, and depending on your target audience, not always effective.

Here’s a great take-away for your readers. I used this ten week social media marketing plan as a model. It’s an excellent start.

Random Question #2: Favourite colour?
I surround myself with all shades of blue. And I love wearing red on days when I need a confidence boost.

Can you tell us about your new/upcoming book?
I mentioned Mind Over Matter at the start of this interview. It’s the first book in the Anderson Security Inc. (ASI) series, and I’m working on book two, Forecasting Raine, now. I also have another, stand-alone novel, The Missing Time, finished, and I’m shopping it around to agents.

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
 Well, I’m a mother who’d do just about anything to protect my kids. And my own mother lost a child at the age of three. I wasn’t even born yet, but the aftereffect of a tragedy like that lingers, and I was able to draw on that to some extent.

The setting for Mind Over Matter is based on the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. My fictional mountain range plays a big part in the story, and posesses many similar rumours and folklore of paranormal occurances on the peaks. I would love to have used the actual Superstition Mountains for my story, but I couldn’t. Townspeople, specifically city officials, prefer not to read about murder and mayhem in their backyards. Accurate research is important, but knowing when you can use it, is vital if an author wants to avoid legal action.

Random Question #3: Tea or coffee?
 Tea. Black, no sugar. I loved sweetend iced tea as well. I hate coffee. I even turn down my best friends famous mocha flavoured chocolate cake. Coffee Crisp candy bars are an exception. They don’t really taste like coffee.

What do you do when you are not writing?
 I read. A lot. And now that I have my Kobo E-reader, it’s entirely too easy to spend way too much money on books. Sigh. It’s an addiction and I’m beyond help.

Last Random Question: Are you a dog person or a cat person? Or horse, bird or whatever else floats your boat. LOL.
 When I lived alone I had cats, simply because they could handle being alone while I was at work, and I didn’t have to walk them. When I got married, each time I mentioned having kids to my husband, he’d suggested we get a cat. By the time we had three cats, we both discovered we were allergic to them. Now I have two kids, aged 15 and 14. They’re not so easy to find new homes for. And a four year old Havanese dog named Mr. Murphy, who my husband wishes would find a new home.

If it was possible, would you ever want to meet your protagonist?
 Absolutely. I’d love to hang out with both Rebecca and Dan. The whole ASI team, come to think of it. I could be their receptionist, and be like Ms. Moneypenny in the Bond movies. Then I’d be able to smack them up the side of the head when they make those stupid moves they sometimes do. I mean, honestly, what were they thinking?

In regards to a new project, do your new characters speak to you, or do they shout?
 Sometimes they whisper, and sometimes shout, but I’m always in charge. Not every great idea is right for the current story. If I think the idea might require too much rewriting for too little return, or that my characters are leading me astray, I reign them in. I’m too busy to follow the wrong path. The real gems get jotted down for use in future books.

Where can people learn more about you and your work?
The new release date for Mind Over Matter is November 2011. If anyone wants a reminder closer to the time they can sign up to receive updates from my blog.

Visit my website here: Take a peek at the new site and give me your feedback!
My blog is here:
 Follow me on Twitter here:!/sandrajc
Friend me on Facebook here:
Like the Mind Over Matter Page here:


One thought on “Interview with S.J. Clarke

  1. Great interview! I love how the hard work you’ve put into your writing career really shines through in this post. Also, I LOVED the show-and-tell fiasco! My goodness, your mom must’ve had her hands full. 🙂

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