Friday, August 15, 2014

True Confessions of Betty Magdalen

Darling Bettys, I pop in from the outer reaches of Facebook Land to ruthlessly exploit the riches of long-form blogging. It's craven but you'll love me for it anyway.

Betty Keira was back. And this time it was personal.
One of the things that I love about Betty heroines is how chummy and curious (in a well-bred way, of course) they are.  If there's a housewife making her way home on the Tube, squashed up next to an Araminta, she's going to unburden herself on a host of issues. If Maisie the ward maid wants to natter on about her sister's husband and her no-account nephew, she'll do it to the friendliest nurse of the bunch. If an Olivia wants to sight-see around London while her international business tycoon husband is off making more buckets of money, she's going to loiter on the sidewalk outside a society wedding or poke about in all sorts of places. Maybe an affinity about this trait is why I felt no compunction about backing Betty Magdalen into a corner the other day about her writing.
Over the course of The Great and Terrible Blog, we had several writers come out of the woodwork to add their two cents over a particular question about publishing or character development. It was so interesting to me and I wanted to know more. Like a Cranky Baby up after naptime, my needs Must. Be. Met.  

Betty Magdalen has been an Uncrushable Jersey Dress reader from the days of it's callow infancy. We're thankful she stuck around, frankly. She is the author of Love in Reality, The Cost of Happiness and Blackjack & Moonlight. Here's her bio on Amazon:
After pairing up lawyers romantically in her head for fifteen years, Magdalen Braden traded in her job as an attorney to set her inner matchmaker free. Today she draws on her past adventures in a Philadelphia law office to write her sexy contemporary romance series, The Blackjack Quartet.
Blackjack & Moonlight, the third installment in the series, was a finalist in the prestigious Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® contest in 2012. All four books contain love, romance, and a solid dose of legal humor.
Magdalen connects with readers at her local satellite of the Lady Jane's Salon® reading series, and with fellow writers at her Romance Writers of America® chapter.
When not writing, she enjoys spending time with her crossword-loving husband, their Rhody-mix dog, and two omnipresent cats in the Endless Mountains of Northeast Pennsylvania.

So she's awesome, pretty much. She also writes considerably more steamy stuff under a pseudonym, Christina Thacher. 

Before I really started the interview, we kicked around a little on Facebook, instant messaging each other. Her answers and my questions were on the fly. I'm in red and her responses are in black. My first question was about Brighton:

I actually don't like too much sex in my romances because it is so often done without any connection to the characters.
I try to keep my sex scenes relevant to the actual relationship.
So you learn something about the people and not about their anatomy.
I was reading a vintage Mary Stewart this weekend where the heroine's boss is an authoress and there's lots of talk about being stuck and how it's so hard to work past that. How do you manage to do a rework when the original work was probably so hard to get through?
The one I'm working on--well, the one "Christina" is working on--is a good example. I got my editor's comments, and waited three months before tackling them. That's because we released Blackjack & Moonlight in the meantime and that was a bit of a palaver.
Anyway, now I'm back to it and it's fine. I've "fixed" the heroine so her motivation is much clearer. Next I need to fix the hero so his conflict is clearer. I find thinking about them as I'm falling asleep is helpful.
Everything else, I suspect, will be a matter of revision and adding.

Meanwhile, as Magdalen, I have to finish a full-length novel (#4 in the Blackjack Quartet) that's stalled and stopped a few times. Again, I just need to dig deeper to understand the characters.
I know that's a bit mumbo-jumbo, but it's all about the characters. If I'm in touch with them, I can write the story.
That is quite a lot to trust an editor to reciprocate with. (I assumed, as you are an indie author, that your editor would be a copy editor mostly) How did you find one you liked?
Do you use the same editor for both your kinds of books?
I do now. I was lucky. Deb (my editor) had rejected Blackjack on behalf of Carina Press (Harlequin's e-only line).
I'm pretty sure Deb herself liked it but [her boss] hated it. Or just thought it wouldn't do well.
Anyhow, Deb then turned out to be Carina's editor for some anthologies that Christina was involved in.
She was so good as Christina's editor that I hired her freelance for MB stuff, and now she can do both.
Deb is the best. In my acknowledgements, I warn family and friends: if there's a burning building, I'm saving Deb first.

I don't need a lot of copy editing, and Ross can do what I need.

But he knows nothing about how romances work. Deb's a 20-year professional in the genre.
Do you ever dread having to write a book that you've already worked into a series? Does it ever feel like homework?
Yes and no.
Yes because it's work, and I have to do it when I'm otherwise retired. (KNITTING!!!!)

But no, because those characters already exist and I want them to live and thrive and find happiness and make babies and be ecstatic.

But at this point it was becoming cumbersome to pretend that I didn't want ALL the details about EVERYTHING. So I took to a longer format and let Magdalen loose: 

"Tell me all about it, darling." Betty Keira ruthlessly wrings the details from Betty Magdalen.
What is it about lawyers? I have met more than my share who did a 180 degree pivot to go into creative careers. What gives?

It’s the last great generalist degree. Oh, and it’s a language course. Basically three solid years learning jargon, idiom, context, and usage. Both spoken and written. At the end of law school, you can talk to any lawyer. Why you’d want to is another matter.
When I started law school in 1992, I volunteered for the school newspaper. I wrote a story on how nearly half of all Penn Law grads were no longer working as lawyers. Some were business types (joint JD-MBA degrees), some had quit and sought a new vocation, and some were doing cool stuff like writing novels or running vintage jazz record stores.
Twenty years after graduating, I’m one of those off-the-beaten-track types.
How did you decide to become a writer? Betty Neels famously decided to after a trip to the library and an overheard conversation (which sounds so prosaic and just like a Neels heroine who has to support a family and decides to just roll up her sleeves).

I’d wanted to write when I was a lot (LOT) younger, but I couldn’t manage it. (Writing is hard. Law school was easy.) So I gave it up until 2009 when I read a series of mysteries by another former lawyer, Julia Spencer-Fleming. The series (you have to start at the beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter) has an amazing romantic subplot. I’ve told everyone—if you stitch all the hero-heroine bits from the first six books together, it’s the best romance I’ve ever read.
Anyway, I finished the six books, immediately reread them, then skimmed them. At the end of all that, I knew what my writing had been lacking: heart. I resolved then to pick up all these plots I’d stashed in my head and do them justice. (I’m trying to, at least.)
Joseph didn't know if the world was ready for genre-bending dinosaur revenge fantasy novels.
When did you finally begin to tell people you were a writer? I imagine you’re pretty much waving your flag now but when you began was there any sort of head-ducking or initial apology for not being Steinbeck or Tolstoy but being a romance author instead?

Saying, “I’m a writer,” is tricky. By definition, if you’re writing, you’re a writer. But until you have a novel published, it seems boastful. When Love in Reality was released (December 2012), I could say, “I write romance novels.” Of course, I was also in an MFA program for creative writing. That helped.
So what I say now is, “I write romance novels.” People are very respectful, I find. I even have people saying they want to read one!
Priscilla wrote with her thinking cap on
What are the tools you most like to use as an author? (Answers could include but not be limited to a bulletin board, a particular writing software, Pinterest, a writing tablet by the bed...etc.)

A lap top, obviously. I just use Microsoft Word because I’m not a plotter or planner; the other software (I have it, I just don’t use it) helps with that stuff.
I have to be able to shop for houses online. Once I can see the two dozen photos of the interior I can write about that house forever. (Which is good because once the house is sold, the photos disappear!) I’ve used Pinterest for clothing. I also Google characters’ names to make sure I’m not writing about someone famous.
I’m terrible at using social media for marketing. I have a love-hate relationship with promoting my own books. So, for example, I use my author’s Facebook page to share photos and videos from the trail cam on our rural property. Has nothing to do with Philadelphia lawyers, but people like to see the fawns…
I just ripped this from the pages of Wikipedia:  “Stephanie Meyer says that the idea for 'Twilight' came to her in a dream. The dream was about a human girl and a vampire who was in love with her but thirsted for her blood.” Authors take inspiration from all sorts of places but how do yours tend to come?
This is not mine but I snorged out loud so in it goes.

So hard to know, honestly. Sometimes it’s an exercise in problem solving. Other times, it’s a scene or vignette that comes to me and makes me think, “I need to write about this.” One thing is clear: I’m always writing about people who are not yet living their authentic life. My novels are exercises in self-discovery more than romances. I just like the happy ending as a reward for doing the hard work of growing up.
I recently came across a great letter written by Jane Austen to her niece who was writing something or other and Jane comments on her place names: “The name of Newton Priors is really invaluable; I never met with anything superior to it. It is delightful, and one could live on the name of Newton Priors for a twelvemonth.” Tell me, because I need it to be true, that naming things in an imaginary world is the funnest thing ever.  (By the way, I have read books where the writing is excellent but the names are forced or clunky and it kills things. You don’t seem to have that problem.)

Most of the places in my books are real. For example, the heroine of Blackjack & Moonlight, Elise Carroll, lived in a small row house across from Fitler Square, a small park in the British style. I was looking at photos online of Fitler Square and saw that it boasts a set of bronze sculptures of turtles. An adult and two babies. When Jack, the hero, sits there, he’s thinking about those sculptures, which leads to thoughts about kids, and so forth.
I did have to create an English village for a storytelling game, Storium. (They’ve asked me to create the framework for games to write their own Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer-style Regency romance. My world, The Stylish Assembly, isn’t available yet.) I wanted something pronounceable but distinctive and very, very fictional. So I went with Much Haddam. Seems like it could be real, but isn’t.
What is your general approach to writing a full length novel? (Heavy outlines first or…?) Does it get easier after clearing the hurdle of the first one?

I’m what’s called a “pantser” or “headlight” writer. I write by the seat of my pants, or as E.L. Doctorow put it, “[Writing is] like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It both gets easier and harder after the first one. On the one hand, everything’s easier once you know you can do it. With writing, though, the first novel feels freakish, as though someone else wrote it in a fog of self-assurance. When it’s poorly received or panned or simply never read, there’s an assumption that all future books will be equally overlooked or disliked.
We’ve talked and agree that Betty Neels would have an extremely difficult time being published by an established publishing house these days.  So, pretend you’re giving advice to a young Betty Neels on getting her work out there and let us know some common mistakes indie authors make when they first start out:

Any advice I could give The Great Betty Neels, I really should be prepared to follow myself. Without the gift of hindsight, and without the supposed-curation granted by a contract with an established publisher, how would she know that anyone would like her distinctly-not-the-mainstream romances? We know now that she has a legion of followers, but when she was starting—?
The answer seems to be precisely what she did: write what interests you, write what you want to read, write what you love. And keep striving to get better at it without obsessing about the one or two books that aren’t perhaps your best work.
At what point did you decide to pull the trigger and become self-published?

After I failed to get that supposed-curation that comes with having an agent or editor want to publish you. My husband, Ross, and I had a deal: If every possible agent (approximately 70 names) who represent romance authors passed on Blackjack & Moonlight, then I’d self-publish. They did, so we published the first book in the quartet, Love in Reality. By that time, Blackjack had been selected as a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart ® contest…and still couldn’t get an agent.
How important is social media to your marketing? Do you hate marketing?

Hate it, and I suck at it. We’ve done it both ways—published a book with no marketing at all and published the next book with a full-court press to get reviewers, readers, blurbs from other authors, etc. At the end of the day, I still feel that the best work I can do is to make my books better.
You don’t fit my idea of an indie author--you formed a publishing company, you pursued your MFA from Stonecoast and employ an editor. Comments?

It’s unfortunate that some self-published authors don’t take the time and care to ensure their books are competently edited and error-free. (It’s also a shame when traditional publishers don’t ensure that their books are error-free.) For years, it left people with the impression that all self-published books are badly written, unedited, and full of typos.
That’s no truer than any other cliché. Here’s what I’ve learned: people who dislike a book will cite any errors or infelicitous writing as a basis for their dislike. But a well-written book can be just as despised. The fact that it’s well-written is never a sufficient condition to raise the reader’s estimation.
I’m an indie author because traditional publishing doesn’t think my books are going to make them enough money. Those agents and editors could be right. I’m lucky because I can self-publish. I’m lucky that my husband is a computer genius, that I have a great editor, I can afford professionally-designed covers, and so forth.
One of my favorite things you have ever done is that T-shirt you made on our Inaugural Bettysday:

Betty Neels was 59 when she wrote her first romance novel
I still have time

I can’t tell you how that inspires me. Maybe you can though?

Well, I made it! I was just shy of my 57th birthday when Love in Reality came out. I’m not (yet) writing four full length novels every year, but I may get there before I turn 59. More than The Great Betty’s formidable and dependable output (I still remember waiting for the next one every three or four months!), I’m inspired by her unwavering sense of the books she wanted to write. I’ll happily live with a fraction of her output if I can be as calmly certain that I wrote the books I wanted to write.
It’s a cliche that authors say their books are like their babies and that they can’t choose a favorite but is there a character or couple that is?

Not yet. (LOL) I don’t feel that my books are my babies. I’m a crafter, and I’m process-oriented. That means that it’s the making that engages me more than the final product. I’m still worried that I’m not improving as a writer, just as I’m worried that I’m a mediocre quilter or a so-so knitter. Once a book is released, it’s available for other people to rate and assess. I’m okay with that.
How many drafts do you typically make? When you cut something fabulous from a book that isn’t working do you keep it in a repository to use again?

I’m working now on the fourth book of the quartet, Lost and Found. I’ve started it three times and I hope I’ve finally got the right beginning. I save everything, and some of it I may actually cannibalize for a later draft.
Once I have a finished draft, I send it to my critique partner, Zara Keane, and to my editor, Deb Nemeth. They may require me to change a lot or a little. At some point, the book is ready for copyediting, which is mostly done by my darling husband, aka my publisher. Then it gets proofread at least twice more. So in the end…anywhere from six to ten drafts.
I’ve seen pictures of the small table Jane Austen used to write (in longhand, with a dodgy ink source), and a picture of Betty Neels at a small desk with an electric typewriter. What does your office/space look like where you sit down to write?

Our house is old, with a traditional space called a “keeping room” back in Colonial days. I used to sit in there (it’s where the wood stove is) but we just replaced the oversized armchairs with a long sofa. Now I sit in an adjacent room, simply because it has an oversized armchair. I do have a storage room an office…
Stephen King has talked about how he tends to write for an ideal reader (his wife) and that he gets so needy when he finally hands a manuscript over to her for her first read through. Do you have other readers (aside from your editor) who serve that function? Do you get needy for good feedback too?

Sadly, Ross is not my ideal reader. My critique partner is great because we started writing around the same time. Our styles are different, though, so we don’t always agree. Believe it or not, I am my own ideal reader. I strive to write precisely the books that I want to read and can’t find.
Writing groups. Helpful? Painful? Both? I can’t imagine any of, say, some of the early untrained Harlequin writers spending any time in more formal workshops to improve their craft (with mixed results, of course) and I wonder if a go-it-alone approach would work anymore.

I used to belong to a mixed writing group (some mysteries, some feminist fiction, some humor, etc.) where I was the only romance writer. I’ve also been in an informal online writing group, workshops, writer’s conferences, etc. I really believe hiring a professional editor whose work you admire is the best and most efficient way of improving.
I read this from F. Scott Fitzgerald (on the subject of being a writer) recently:
“We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives--experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.
Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories--each time in a new disguise--maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen….Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion--one that’s close to me and that I can understand...What you aim at is to get in a good race or two when the crowd is in the stand.”
I liked what he said about needing to feel and understand an emotion before he wrote it but I’m not sure it works that way for all writers. Your thoughts on the above?
Betsy, Madge and Gladys were all surprised when they discovered they'd each had a moving experience with Mr. Fitzgerald.

I’ve certainly experienced it as a reader—I’ve read a passage in a romance and thought, “Yes! This!!” The alchemy of turning our deepest experiences and feelings into fiction—that’s harder to see with romances. My own experiences at falling in love haven’t shown up in my books, maybe because I was older than my heroines when I did find my heroes!
I do think, though, that all writers betray something of their real angst when they write. I write about people who aren’t where they should be, or are pretending, or lying to themselves, or are blocked from happiness. I’ve experienced all of those things myself, so it’s not surprising that I’m writing about that over and over.
Essie Summers occasionally makes her heroines authoresses (I’m so surprised that Betty Neels never did--only venturing close enough with an illustrator and a greeting card sentiment writer) and sometimes she’ll include a paragraph (written from the heroine’s perspective) that expresses her irritation that people always assume an author is constantly mining their friends and relations for copy--that an author has plenty of imagination on her own not to need to hijack the experiences of others. But, again, I’m not sure it works that way for all writers. How much YOU is in your books? How many autobiographical details might work their way in and do you have to be careful not to turn acquaintances into characters? Or do you just give it up as a lost cause and do it?

When I left the last major law firm I worked at, everyone assumed that HE would be in my writing. Hah! I haven’t used a single former colleague in a book. On the surface, I myself am nowhere to be found in my books. I have, however, given my characters some real estate I used to occupy.
Truthfully, I don’t find writing about tremendously real people that useful. Take lawyers, for example. My characters are smart, funny and able to fall in love. They’re fictional! I love that I can make them better than lawyers tend to be.


  1. Very interesting and enjoyable to read. Thanks, Betties!

  2. Betty Barbara here--
    Oh, that was lovely! Thank you both for the great interview.
    Betty Magdalen--way to go!

  3. You must be the best-researched interviewer I've read in a long time. I learned almost as much from the questions as the answers. And now I have a new healthy respect for lawyers as linguists, where I usually think of them as judges behind veils of ignorance enforcing social contracts. Or Perry Mason.

    Love the t-shirt. :)

    Thanks for posting here. I don't visit Facebook. I imagine I'm missing a lot of fun.

    Catherine (a Betty van den Wasatch)

    1. Betty van den Wasatch, I was all against Facebook myself. However, there are ways to limit the risks of being spied out, if that is your concern. First, one could, for example, open a new user/guest account on one's computer just for visiting TUJD on Facebook. Of course, if one wanted to open other web pages, do some research on google, or open links the data of which one does not want Facebook to store on their huge servers (or whatever they are called) in the north of Sweden, one would have to change to one's normal user account on one's computer. A bit awkward perhaps, but it can be done.
      Second, there is a seemingly endless number of security and privacy settings that needs to be dealt with after registration on Facebook. It's all quite easy, once you've got the hang of it, but tedious work and perhaps a little bewildering to the novice. So get someone to help you with that if you can. You'll find a lot of information on the internet, if you want to read up on it beforehand. Facebook is a bit mean, if you want to read the details you have to be registered first...

      You decide who can contact you, you decide who can see what on your Facebook page...

      I limit myself to clearing the history before logging in on Facebook, not even a cookie crumble left when I open TUJD on Facebook. I can do that because I have no saved passwords on my computer. If there is something I want to google something that I don't want them to save in Sweden I just log out. And then clear the slate (history) again before I logging in.

      You are missing a lot of fun. You and Betty Barbara whom I often miss over on the Facebook page. I hate for you to miss it all. But I am awfully glad there are still people here on the blog who write comments.

    2. Thank you for the Facebook tips. I'll explore. :)

      Catherine (a Betty van den Wasatch)

  4. Great interview! Thank you both. This is really interesting.

  5. That was really enjoyable. Thanks so much for posting.