She’s won Flash! Friday three times, she served as judge in Year Two, and today marks the debut of her very first novel, A Man of Character. We couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate our own Margaret Locke than by featuring her here at Flash! Friday today, in her very own Spotlight interview.
In honor of the launch, Margaret has generously offered to give away a free, signed copy of her brand new book to a randomly selected commenter (wow!!! thank you!). So make some popcorn and settle in with us for a few minutes, won’t you? This is gonna be goooood.
You’ve long loved romance; what’s surprised you about writing a romance novel yourself?
In writing romance, my appreciation for the experts in the craft has increased ten-fold. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always known authors are brilliant. The ability to weave a tale in which complex characters and elements mix and blend together while simultaneously pursuing different intents and goals, and somehow finding a satisfying way to tie it all up? Yeah, that ain’t easy.
What I hadn’t known much about was the challenges of fiction writing itself. People have always told me I was a good writer, so I thought I knew how to write. Ha ha ha. I’m grateful to my local critique group and my beta readers for providing feedback on my (numerous) rough drafts. I’m grateful, also, to those who’ve written books on fiction writing and especially romance writing, and to those who share their expertise and experience on blogs or through conferences. The Pay It Forward attitude in the romance world is one of the things I love most about it.
Many people still dismiss romance. They think it isn’t worth reading, much less writing. They think it’s easy. They’re wrong. Writing a story in which the relationship arc/developing love story consistently remains front and center, while incorporating a second plot line that develops the action and fleshes out the tale beyond just the relationship, is a skill. Getting the pacing right, getting the characters right, getting the setting and the mood and the balance of elements and issues right, is terrifyingly difficult. I know! I still have so much to learn, so many ways to improve.
I’m proud to write in this genre, though. I’m proud to write these stories about women, largely for women (although 16% of romance readers are male, and there are men who write romance, as well. Hooray!). I’m privileged to be a member of the romance writing community, and am thrilled that, more and more, romance novels and their authors are garnering the respect they deserve. Because, as my tagline says, love matters.
What romance authors have inspired you most, and how/why?
My favorite romance novelists are like royalty to me. When I was younger, it was as if they weren’t even real persons, these larger-than-life names I eagerly sought out on bookstore shelves. LaVyrle Spencer, Johanna Lindsey, Susan Johnson, Lisa Kleypas. They weren’t normal people like you and me, right? They must be glamorous celebrities, brilliant authors in whose circles I would never run.
Social media changed that. Suddenly, authors whose names I’d idolized for years were right there, typing away on Facebook or Twitter. Often, I couldn’t believe it was them – I was sure an assistant, or even an imposter, was pretending to be them. I remember asking Eloisa James if it was really her! (It was.)
One of the things that resonated with me most when I first discovered these authors online (which, as it happened, coincided with my first attempts at drafting a real novel), was when I told Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Sabrina Jeffries that I idolized them and wanted to write like them, but knew I could never be as good as they are. They all responded (!), and all said the same thing: “Why not? Who says you can’t?”
Since those early online interactions, I’ve met a number of romance authors in person, including Eloisa and Sabrina. I spoke with Ms. Jeffries at length at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. “Don’t write in a vacuum,” she said, “like I did at first.” She emphasized the need to get feedback, to hear from others, to see what others are writing, to not isolate oneself. That stuck with me.
Moving from fan-to-idol interactions to more writer-to-writer interactions has been a huge adjustment. First of all, realizing that a) writers are regular people and that b) they have to work hard at what they do (the words don’t just fall out, completed and polished, on the page, doggone it) was eye-opening. Secondly, being willing to count myself as one of them, as part of the group, has come more slowly. I still feel like a poser. Maybe I am. But I’m edging up to the table, looking for a way into the party, and am delighted by how many people are opening up the door, instead of shutting me out.
The most consistent piece of advice I’ve heard is BICHOK – Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. In the words of one of my newest romance writing idols, Katy Regnery (who was quoting her idol, Bella Andre), “Write the books, write the books, write all the books.” For someone like me, who procrastinates with the best of them and who is really good at getting distracted, that emphasis on viewing writing as job, writing as structure, writing as planned, regulated activity, rather than just “ooh, the muse is singing, let’s go for it,” has changed my approach immensely. OK, my thinking, at least. As in many areas of my writing career, I have room for improvement on the consistency front, for sure.
You’re a huge part of the FF community. Have you been able to apply anything from flash writing to the novel writing process?
I. Love. Flash. Friday.
I absolutely love it. It’s bolstered my confidence in countless ways. I will never forget the time I first met you, dearest Dragoness, in person, and you said, “You’re my Margaret Locke?” As if I were someone special. To have people provide immediate feedback–especially positive, encouraging feedback—stokes this writer’s anxious, self-doubting little ego.
Flash Friday also gets me consistently writing. In the nearly two years since I started participating, I’ve missed fewer than five weeks. That’s intentional: I’ve made the commitment to FF, not only because it’s fun, but because it forces me to write at least something new every week, no matter what’s going on in the novel-writing part of my life.
It’s also helped my writing in numerous ways. First off, I’ve learned to edit as I go. Because FF stories are so short, I have time to review and hone and cut and maneuver, and I know in doing so, I strengthen the stories. It’s a microcosm of the larger novel world—if I can see how much editing/revising aids a story of 200 words, then I can see how editing/revising a larger tale strengthens it, as well. And since, uh, the editing/revising part isn’t my favorite, it’s helpful to have reminders as to why it’s essential.
Seeing the incredible variety of takes people come up with, based on the same photo and/or word prompt, also drives it home that there’s room for all sorts of stories, and that no two people, no two writers, see things in the same way. I hesitate to name names, because I know I will invariably miss someone whose writing has influenced me, but I know reading stories by Taryn Noelle Kloeden, Maggie Duncan, Foy Iver, Annika Keswick, Mark King, Michael Seese, Tamara Shoemaker, Betsy Streeter, and so many others (including YOU, Ms. Postupak) has taught me so much about what makes good writing. And watching how these fabulous writers support each other, knowing personally how their words of encouragement have kept me going when I’ve felt my efforts were mediocre at best, is one of the reasons I also work to comment as often as I can.
Judging FF made me doubly appreciate the effort FF judges put in, and how much they/we agonize over our selections — while also helping me to see that if the judges didn’t like my story one week (or more!), it didn’t mean my work wasn’t good. Because, hey, we all want to win, right? I still want that — but acknowledging the subjective nature of the judging process freed me up to write what I wanted (humor! Why does humor never win?!), without trying to please the judges so much. It also helped a bit in dealing with the many rejections from agents—instead of assuming I was terrible and should give up, I occasionally could say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t for them, but it might be for somebody else.” Occasionally.
So, a NOVEL! Tell us about that moment when you were like, “I’VE DECIDED TO WRITE A BOOK!”
As a teen, I declared I was going to write romances when I grew up. I just, er, never did. In high school and college, I wrote lots of bad poetry. And apparently I wrote a couple of romantic short stories, because I recently discovered them again, along with several novel ideas I’d sketched out. I’d truly forgotten I’d written those! But in spite of my teenage promise, I think part of me never truly thought I’d be a romance novelist. As I aged, it didn’t seem a “legitimate” enough pursuit, and, again, I placed all of those romance writers on a pedestal, one on which I didn’t think I belonged. Plus, I’d developed other loves — German and medieval history — and thought I’d be a professor. Which still involved a lot of writing, but academic, not fiction, of course.
However, after years of being a full-time mom, once the kids both were in school, I had to figure out what I wanted to do next. Husband and I had many discussions about whether or not I should go back to work. One day, while on a dinner date, he said, “What do you REALLY want to do?” And I answered without hesitation, “I want to write.” It felt like such an unreal, and selfish, thing to ask for, especially since my husband has served as the breadwinner for years. Wasn’t it my turn to give back financially to the family? I have the best husband in the world, though, because without batting an eye, he said, “Then writing is what you should do.”
He’s supported me the entire way, is convinced I’m the next J.K. Rowling (ha ha, NOT!), and is not the least bit concerned whether not I make a dime off of my writing, as long as I’m doing what makes me happy. Believe me, I know how lucky I am, and it brings tears to my eyes to know the biggest reason I was able to achieve my dream of writing this novel (the first of many, I hope) is because I had the time to do so. I’m one lucky woman.
Give us the biography of MoC so far.
The idea came up at that same dinner, the one in which I confessed my desire to give this fiction-writing thing a try. As we were driving home, I was mulling over story ideas—because if I’m going to write a book, I needed a premise, right? At one point, I blurted out, “How about a story in which a woman figures out the guys in her life are characters she wrote when she was a teenager?” Husband liked it. During the next week, I wrote the outline. It was less a formal outline than a narration of scenes, but yes, I plotted the whole thing out. It was like I was watching a movie in my head, and writing down what I visualized happening next.
Drafting the actual story was harder. I remember staring at the screen, thinking, “I’ve got to come up with a really memorable first line. Everyone says that first line has to be stellar!” It froze me for a while – until I said, “Duh, just write something. You can always change it later.” So that’s what I did – although ironically, that first line of chapter one never changed. It’s the first line I wrote of the whole book, and it’s exactly the same:
The last thing Catherine Schreiber wanted to do was talk about men.
As for the first draft, it took a year. Well, no, not exactly. I didn’t finish it for a year. I wrote about a third of the book in the fall of 2011, even shared it with a few people (including my amazingly positive cheerleader, my cousin Joy), and then … stopped. I got scared. It took me a number of months before I was willing to look at it again, but I committed to finishing it before the end of 2012.
And then I started editing. I joined a critique group. It was absolutely terrifying to be in that hot seat the first time, but I did it. In addition, I had beta readers, especially my wonderful friend Annika Keswick, who kept on me to keep going. I got the book to where I thought it was pretty good, and I decided to send it out to agents. I’d thought about going indie, but in truth, I still had (have) that big part of me that worried maybe I wasn’t good enough, that I needed that brass ring from traditional publishing to prove myself. I queried eight agents in the spring of 2014. All rejected me, except one, who asked for a partial — but not until months after I’d heard from everyone else. It was rather heart-breaking, but I’d read enough about the industry to know the chances of landing an agent were about 1 in a 100 – so only querying eight was merely a drop in the bucket.
I kept editing and polishing, and decided I was going to go all out in my efforts to get published in the fall of 2014. And I did – I queried at least sixty agents. I got several requests for partials, three requests for the full manuscript, and lots and lots of rejections. Of the requests for partials or fulls, all eventually said no. One agent who asked for the whole thing never got back to me.
By now, I was pretty bummed. I knew my book was a bit hard to categorize by traditional romance standards. One of my rejection letters mentioned that specifically – they didn’t know where they’d put it on a shelf. Sigh.
I decided to query smaller publishing houses, as a few author friends suggested. Lo and behold, I got a publication offer in December of 2014. Oh my GOD! Someone wanted my book! Someone believed in it enough to consider it worth publishing! The high lasted for days.
The offer was from a company that only publishes books electronically. It was at that point that I realized how badly I wanted to hold my book in my hands. I also chatted at length with an author who’d first gone small-press and had since turned indie. Her experiences, plus my own desire for that old-fashioned book-in-the-hands moment, led me to turn down the publishing offer. For reals.
My husband was the deciding factor in me going indie. I hesitated to turn down the small publishing house, because they would front the editing costs, and I knew I needed professional editing to be taken seriously. But to fork over that kind of money on my own? I was trying to make some moola, not spend more in an effort to get published. Without batting an eye, though, my darling said, “We can cover that. No biggie.” “But what if I don’t make it back?” I fretted. He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.” Reader, I love him.
Next I had to find an editor. So I asked Katy Regnery, the indie author mentioned above, whom she used, and she graciously shared the name of her developmental editor — Tessa Shapcott. After discovering Tessa had worked with Harlequin for years, but now freelances and particularly enjoys working with new indie authors, I contacted her right away. Tessa is amazing, y’all. She read my book and got back to me with comprehensive developmental suggestions within five days. All of her observations were spot on.
In truth, I could edit A Man of Character forever. I think most authors feel that way. But this spring, I decided I’d been at this long enough, and I needed to get this book out, if only to not let fear win. So I committed to a publication date, read the book through again about fifty million times, worked with the most awesome Joy Lankshear on cover and interior design, and declared, “That’s it. This book is done.”
Did you have any characters not behave how you expected–any plot twists or character quirks that you hadn’t seen coming?
Absolutely. Most of the characters I sketched out in advance, but darn if they didn’t take on a life of their own. Cat’s sister, Marie, initially swore like a sailor–which took a few beta readers by surprise. “But you don’t swear,” my mother-in-law said, to which I replied, “You’re right. I don’t. And I’m not swearing – my character is.” In the end, Marie’s part got cut down and most of the curse words with it. Which is too bad, because I rather relished using the term f*cktart in a sentence.
Let’s talk editing. You’ve had a lot of different people look at it, from beta readers to a workshop crit panel, to a professional editor. Dish.
Beta readers are great – especially if they aren’t writers. Not that I’m dissing my writer friends; they are excellent at delving into problems with craft. But often we get so bogged down with issues of point-of-view, or character development, or pacing of a section, that we lose sight of the whole. Not so beta readers – they might not notice (or care) if you’re overusing certain words or lacing your text with adverbs, but they will notice if your characters are unlikable, or major plot points don’t work for them.
On the other hand, my critique group is wonderful at working on the very things many readers don’t necessarily notice, but which weaken the story–passive verbs, word repetition, draggy back story, etc. Having them read my work, and certainly reading their own, helps me hone my own writing in innumerable ways. I consider both the reader and writer feedback invaluable.
That crit panel was harder. I had a well-known, well-respected romance novelist rip me in front of a group of people (not that they knew it was me, since it was anonymous, but I knew it was me) on my overuse of saidisms, lookisms, and twitchisms. Did it hurt? Yes. But I somehow managed to approach said author after the panel and ask her how I should do it. Did I change everything? No. But I learned a lot – and the fact that some of the authors didn’t agree with her reminded me again of the subjective nature of writing.
The best thing I did, though, hands-down, was invest in a developmental editor. I already spoke about Tessa; I only wish I’d sought her help out earlier — which I will definitely do with the next book.
That terrifying word: MARKETING. Well?
Ugh. Well, I’ve done a lot of reading about what to do and what not to do. I’ve spoken with other authors and watched what they’re doing. I’ve asked people outright what they thought worked and what doesn’t. Nobody knows the best answers; things change so fast!
I’m grateful my husband keeps reminding me I don’t need to sell a million copies, I don’t need to do everything “they” say to do. I can do as little or as much as I want; no pressure. That helps, especially since obsessive, perfectionistic me wants to do everything “right.” I think the hardest thing is balancing sales pitches with actual interactions with people – because, well, I’m stoked about the book and want to tell everyone about it! I have to keep in mind, though, that no one else will be as excited about it as I am. To me, it’s my baby. To them, it’s one in a sea of a million books.
I’m working on growing my social media presence – which isn’t unpleasant, because I love social media and interacting with people. A little too much.
I’m running give-aways on GoodReads and Amazon. I’m reading marketing guides. I’m looking for local opportunities, such as the book signings I’ll be doing at the Artisan Galleries in Massanutten over the summer. And I’m second-guessing myself a lot. It’s all a learning process.
I love that you’re already looking forward. Can you share?
Thanks to NaNoWriMo, which I find incredibly motivating and fun, I already have complete drafts of my next two novels, A Matter of Time and The Demon Duke. They need a lot of work. But I’ve committed to publishing AMOT in the fall, and TDD in the spring, mostly to get more books to my name. I know that’s key in terms of discoverability and building a fan base.
But one of the things I like most about being indie is I’m not under anyone else’s deadlines. That could be a bad thing, given my procrastinating tendencies, but it’s also freeing, in that if life interferes and I can’t get a book done, I’m not hurting anyone but myself. I’d like to be able to put out two books a year. We’ll see what happens. I do hope, as I gain more experience and learn what to do and not to do, that the time to write and finish each book will shorten, though I don’t ever intend to try to write four, five, six books or more in a year. That would kill me.
You’ve recently attended some conferences and workshops. Worth it?
I love conferences. They’re so invigorating – of the few I’ve attended, I’ve always left wanting to go home and write right that minute. I do hope to attend more as I am able: family obligations and costs mean I can’t do as many as I’d like. Some year, I do plan on attending the huge Romance Writers of American conference! I’m a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America), and RWA subchapters VRW (Virginia Romance Writers) and the Beau Monde (for those who write Regency romance). All three groups are welcoming and inclusive. The authors I’ve met are fantastic and supportive, regardless of which publication route they and I are pursuing.
GREECE! can we expect to see any “souvenirs” of your recent trip in future books?
Greece sneaked up on me. It’d been my husband’s lifelong dream to go, and while I wasn’t exactly averse to the idea of seeing the Parthenon, I didn’t think I’d love it as much as I did. Will it play into future books? Possibly… lots of 19th century British folk did visit Greece, after all. But for me, my heart belongs to England. It’s where I most long to go back, to strengthen (hopefully) the accuracy of my writing, and to give me more of a feel for the atmosphere in general.
Anything else? The mic is ALL YOURS! ❤
Honey, you done wrung it all out of me. Pretty sure you’re tired of my prattling on as it is, so I’m turning it back over to you. Thanks SO MUCH for hosting me on the Flash Friday Fiction site; it’s such a thrill, and a privilege.
The privilege is ours! –and now, dear FF readers, it’s your turn! Questions? Comments? A reminder one lucky commenter today will get a free, autographed copy of Margaret’s brand new novel, A Man of Character. Read more about this book and others at her website.