by JN Welsh, author of In Rhythm
The O’Jays had it right when they wrote “I Love Music.” This is not only my own personal sentiment but one that makes a cameo in my upcoming release, In Rhythm, book two in my Back on Top series. The novel is set in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene and music plays a major role in the plot as well as contributing to the internal growth and transformation of the characters as the love story develops.
In the story, DJ Asha Kendall, aka “Velvet,” is going after her goals with blinders on. So much so that she never sees Dutch DJ Isaak “Zazzle” VanSandt coming. They are on two different career paths that are about to converge. Given their passion for music they should be in sync, but Zazzle’s fondness for hard partying has Velvet pressing pause. The novel explores second chances, romance on many levels, found family, hope, friendship, addiction and recovery, and fear. Similar to In Tune—book one in the series—In Rhythm offers a new take on the rock star romance trope. The dance music setting gives my characters an exciting and energetic arena for their shenanigans, where emotions are heightened and accelerated.
My personal experience with the music scene goes back further than book one or even the series’s ideation. I grew up being exposed to a lot of music from many different genres. Not only did I listen to music, but my father was a DJ, as well. If his friends and our neighbors wanted to rock a party, they went to him. Later, when my wanderlust was at an all-time high, I traveled the world and became acquainted with the techno and the drum and bass of the ’90s. When I was reintroduced to the current electronic music scene a few years ago, it was love at first sound. Going to DJ school to learn about the multifaceted profession of DJs today—the equipment, the showmanship, the pitfalls, the highs—was the icing on the cake for me.
If you’ve never been to an EDM festival or have never seen a DJ play, there are some universal interactions with music I use to help acquaint readers with the landscape of such a specific music culture; for example, the cheers of the crowd or the vibration of the bass. No matter what genre of music you jam to, you can connect. Why? Because in real life and in the novel, music has the power to bring people together. It helps draw the reader and characters together, it brings found family together, and it definitely connects the heroine and hero.
The music and the romance go hand in hand. The novel progresses in beats and bars, in rhythmic phrases with a certain tempo to the pacing. As the fans interact with the artist and as the main characters interact with each other, the music and its importance are always present. So, when the music is blaring and the thud of the bass is pounding against the walls, Zazzle palms Velvet’s chin, his finger strokes her cheek and he says, “You were great tonight.” That’s romantic, loving and, dare I say, a little hot. Did I mention the story is fun and heartfelt, even as it tackles some challenging topics, and takes you to exotic locations?
If you’re ready for an adventure in this world and want to know how this all comes together, read In Rhythm today.
About In Rhythm:
Superstar or Supernova?
Asha “Velvet” Kendall is this close to achieving her dream of headlining the legendary Temptation Festival as half of the DJ duo Bedazzled Beats. The EDM scene could use a powerful female presence, and Velvet and her bestie Candy are ready for their moment in the spotlight. A chance encounter with sexy-as-sin industry icon Isaak “Zazzle” Van Sandt is the cherry on top.
With a shared passion for music and an intense mutual attraction, the pair should be totally in sync. Instead, Zazzle’s reputation for hard partying has Velvet hitting Pause.
Zazzle knows both the high of superstardom and the darker side of the life. But six months after rock bottom, he’s got his feet firmly planted on a new, less destructive path. Next stop: wooing the curvaceous and tenacious “one that got away.”
But Velvet’s been there, done that, and she’s wary of risking her heart—not to mention her career—on someone in recovery. Earning her trust won’t be easy. If Zazzle can manage it, off-the-charts chemistry might just turn into once-in-a-lifetime love…
Welcome to our first-page critiques! These critiques are meant to give insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 800 words, 2 pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!
It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically to be critiqued on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions for this purpose. We’re not going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it, so no need to worry about that!
This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Mackenzie Walton.
This was submitted by the author as an opening scene.
Author A described this manuscript as a fantasy romance featuring a heroine “of a certain age.”
“You cheating, Bastard!”
Chelsi Burnett stared at the well-endowed, scantily clad, woman wearing…well, sort of wearing, a sexy red and green elf costume.
Golf tees, score cards, and a pair of red lace thongs were strewn across Daniel Wright’s mahogany desk. The director of food and beverage at Redfield Country Club had been caught.
Her pace quickened as she stormed through the office. The thud of her kitchen clogs echoed across her fiancés plush, carpeted floor.
The lap dancer ungracefully removed herself from Daniel’s lap, exposing the family jewels. She picked up the cloth napkin from his desk and wiped her chocolate-and-whipped-cream-covered breasts, tossing the soiled linen on his lap. At the hemline of her costume, she aligned both halves of the zipper. Casting him one final look, she zipped it closed…major boobage still exposed. Placing her high-heeled shoe seductively on Daniel’s thigh she smoothed her above-the-knee, candy-cane striped hose. After one final adjustment of the girls, she plucked her green elf hat off Daniel’s head.
“Next time, lover-boy, lock the door,” she said, and sashayed out of his office.
Daniel snagged the napkin from his lap. Lowering his head, he wiped off the chocolate dessert smeared on his face. He bent at the waist and grasped his impetuously dropped drawers. In one swift motion, he pulled them up, gingerly zipping his fly.
“But Chelsi, it’s not what it looks like!” he pleaded. “The guys in the pro shop sent me a…um…a Candy-Cane Gram.”
Every muscle in her body began to quiver. “Okay Casanova, let me guess. Your pants were down around your ankles and there was a half-naked woman, wearing an elf costume, straddling your lap. Your fire hose was doing what…pray tell? Putting out the fire in her vagina?”
She clenched her fists until they hurt.
“It’s exactly what it looked like!”
In the dead of winter, a hot flash took over Chelsi like her own personal summer. Sweat trickled down her forehead collecting in the band of her baseball cap.
“Not now!” she screamed, to herself.
In a frenzied search of Daniel’s desk, she picked up a golf score card. Seeking relief from the unwelcomed sweat-fest, she wildly fanned her face, praying it wouldn’t last long.
Partially hidden under the discarded panties sat a business card. With one finger, she carefully maneuvered it away from said undies and snatched it up. Eyes fixed, Chelsi stared at Daniel over the rim of her glasses. Teeth marks were embedded into the card. On one side was a heart fashioned from two connected candy-canes. The other, ‘Candy-Girl’ and a phone number were printed in bold green letters. The letter ‘A’ was omitted, an elf hat, in its place. She was positive the girl was not looking for catering advice.
With the aid of a golf tee she stabbed at the panties, then flicked them at Daniel.
Protecting himself from the airborne object, he ducked, swatting the evidence away.
Chelsi pointed to the half-eaten slice of chocolate truffle cheesecake.
“That’s my signature dessert. I baked it yesterday!” Enraged, she removed her diamond ring, held it in the air, then, shook it in his face.
“Strike three. You’re out! Not only are you single again, I want you out of my apartment, tonight!”
He swallowed hard, stunned at the scene unfolding before him. “I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me over this! If it’s a menopause thing, you seriously need to see a lady doctor to get meds to control these outbursts. Can we at least talk about it?”
Using clipped words, she said, “Not. A. Chance!”
I’m of two minds when it comes to opening a romance with the protagonist walking in on a cheating partner. Some will say that it’s cliche and overdone, and that’s certainly true. But cliches become cliches for a reason—opening with a scene like this is a great way to immediately create sympathy for Chelsi, as well as to start the book off with a bang. How she reacts to the situation also gives us some clues to her personality—So give it some thought before going in this direction, but it’s certainly not entirely off the table.
Here the author does a good job of sharing some key information right away: these two work together, which is inevitably going to complicate the breakup; Chelsi is a baker; and Chelsi also seems to be going through menopause, which makes her even more sympathetic. If anything can make this situation more terrible, it’s having to pause in the middle of it to deal with a hot flash while a jerk snarks about it.
Despite this being a scene designed to throw the reader into the thick of things, though, it actually moves a little slowly in places, particularly when the elf and Daniel are cleaning up and straightening their clothes. I’d suggest not getting too bogged down in the exact blocking—the motions Daniel goes through to pull up his pants are not as important as the overall feeling of the scene and the emotions Chelsi is going through.
I also ended up being a little confused by the elf. How does Chelsi know she’s a lap dancer? Is she a candy-gram person who got carried away, or a sex worker? (The business card is actually inconclusive on this point.) And why did she leave her thong behind when it was in plain view on the desk? Underwear isn’t cheap! But what I do appreciate is that the author doesn’t turn Chelsi’s scorn toward the elf, who for all we know had no idea Daniel was in a relationship. Ultimately, the elf is not the creator of this little nightmare, and I’m relieved that it’s recognized.
There are some typos and grammar mistakes throughout, though do know that no Carina editor is going to reject a great story because the book isn’t completely error-free. But I do always suggest a thorough read-through to clean up whatever issues you can spot, and to make sure there are no problems with clarity. For example, it’s not one-hundred percent clear whether there’s one thong or two on the desk. Having two would potentially add some more color to Daniel’s character!
Would I keep reading? Yes, I’d want to see where this goes.
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by Ruby Lang, author of Open House
A few weeks ago I talked to someone who really wanted me to be my characters.
We’d been sitting on the playground benches watching our kids run around, swapping stories about how we met our spouses. When I told her about my first date with my husband, how we’d walked around the city for hours and hours talking and laughing, losing track of time, she said, “No wonder you write romance.”
And then she made to leap to insisting that my books—which she’d never read—were probably about me.
I thought about Open House, my upcoming enemies-to-lovers story (I’ve never been in that situation—all my nemeses remain nemeses) featuring a real estate broker heroine (never been a broker) doing battle with a gardener-accountant hero (never been an accountant) over an urban garden built on a valuable lot.
I stated confidently that I did not write about myself. She didn’t believe me.
My friend meant well. She probably intended it as a compliment about how well I told my anecdote, but it was still troubling. I told her repeatedly I really did make my stories up—I thought of character, motivation, setting, I strove to make things seem real—but she kept asking if I was sure that my characters weren’t me.
It started to feel like a gentler version of the kind of phenomenon many female romance writers experience where readers assume the heroines are self-inserts, a reflection of the writer’s life or fantasies. There’s always someone asking smirkingly if the sex scenes are drawn from personal experience, always someone offering to help you practice.
Once, I overheard the real estate broker who was trying to sell our neighbor’s place remark loudly in our echo-y halls, “There are a lot of writers in this building. Even a romance writer, and—” he gave a laugh heavy with innuendo “—you know what they’re like.”
For this obnoxious man, there was no separation between what I wrote about and my actual existence.
I like my characters. I like how their lives end up. But the point is, I don’t live their lives: I make them.
My husband, who used to write crime novels, wasn’t mentioned by the loudmouth broker. In fact, my husband has never been asked if his books are drawn from experience, if his characters are him. No one questions him about how many people he’s killed, who he’s double-crossed, or whether he’s embezzled any money lately. Maybe they’re afraid of what he might do to them—Crime writers, you know what they’re like—but I’m pretty sure fear is not the issue.
Romance fiction isn’t often respected because the work of women isn’t respected. And in a way, when people assume that every story that a romance writer writes is limited to the author’s experience or life, they indicate they think the novelists don’t really employ literary craft or technique: we aren’t so much writing as passively transcribing.
I actually have another authorial career: I’m also a non-fiction writer. Under my real name, Mindy Hung, I’ve written about romance novels, notably for the quirky, now defunct website The Toast. I’ve also had personal essays published in Salon, and The New York Times, among others. (In fact, one of my essays is included in the revised and updated Modern Love anthology. It does not have a happy ending.)
In other words, I do occasionally write about myself, but I label it non-fiction.
I don’t consider one kind of writing more important than the other, and I don’t consider one easier than the other. All have their challenges. For me, the difficulty with non-fiction pieces is getting context right and conveying the happenings or ideas coherently. For romance fiction writing, my struggle is constructing a story that makes sense emotionally and logically both from scene to scene and globally. I’m world building, character building, everything building. I’m actively thinking of what’s right for every piece of dialogue and description.
There is nothing passive about what I do in either type of writing.
I wish I could say I had a perfect response for my acquaintance, the one who insisted my life was my novels. I wish that in one pithy sentence I opened her eyes to the beauty and craft behind these books. In other words, I wish I could write a kind of a happy-ever-after for this particular moment.
But life, unlike fiction, doesn’t respond well to my attempts at revision.
About Open House:
Love can take root where you least expect it.
Tyson Yang never imagined that one day he’d be the de facto spokesperson for an illegal community garden. But when the once-rat-infested-but-now-thriving Harlem lot goes up for sale, Ty can’t just let all their hard work get plowed under.
Even if he is irresistibly drawn to the lovely but infuriatingly stubborn real estate associate.
Magda Ferrer’s family is already convinced this new job will be yet another flop in her small but growing list of career path failures. But her student debt isn’t going anywhere, and selling her uncle’s historic town house and the lot nearby means a chance to get some breathing room.
Ty is her charming rival, her incorrigible nemesis, the handsome roadblock to her success.
Until one hot Harlem night blurs the hard line drawn between them, and the seeds of possibility in this rocky garden blossom into love…
by Shannon Stacey, author of One Christmas Eve
The holiday season is a hectic time for adults, and for many it’s not only very busy, but also a time of emotional and/or financial stress. Nothing kickstarts my festive mood like a holiday romance because, whether the pages are filled with angsty emotion or humor and fun, I know the story will end in a happily-ever-after for the holidays.
Here are just a few of the books I’m looking forward to savoring with my favorite fleece blanket and a hot mug of coffee. (If my dogs will share my fleece blanket with me. They can be rather greedy when it comes to fleece.)
I’ve always been a sucker for romances set in Alaska. Throw in Christmas and a guy trying not to fall for his sister’s best friend and I am so there.
I also love books set in Montana (which might be Nora Roberts’s fault). Throw in a grumpy doctor, some search and rescue, and Hanukkah, and this sounds like a perfect holiday read!
A little heat with my romance is perfect for a chilly night, so I find a lot of Harlequin Desires on my holiday reading list. I love Jessica’s books and it has a fake fiancé, so I’ll definitely be reading Christmas Seduction!
For even more heat, I’ll be reading this offering from the Dirty Bits line by Carina Press. Small-town librarians snowed in at the library overnight!
That title! Coupled with the premise—a single mom, a fixer-upper house, and a bad boy passing through—this is one that definitely needs to be in my holiday TBR.
I try to read at least one holiday romance per year that’s set in a place that’s a lot warmer than New Hampshire, and Jamaica definitely fits the bill. I’m so here for a hot CEO that was the best man at her wedding that didn’t happen!
Now that the season for holiday romances is upon us, I know I’ll be buying a lot more of them than I can read before the New Year. (To be honest, I have more holiday romances in my TBR pile than I can read before New Year’s Day of 2050, but it never hurts to have a stockpile.) Holiday romance covers tend to catch my eye, and I can’t resist the titles. Knowing I’ll close the book basking in the glow of a heartwarming holiday HEA makes them irresistible to me and, as you can see, I’ve already got my reading list ready!
About One Christmas Eve:
They couldn’t be more different. Or more perfect for each other.
New York Times bestselling author Shannon Stacey returns with a warm and cozy opposites-attract Christmas story.
Zoe Randall is busy living her life as she damn well pleases. She’s back in her favorite town, her divorce in her rearview mirror, and living out her childhood dream of running a bookstore with her cousin. She has no interest in the uptight nerd who opened his boring-ass business next to her shop…until he complains about one of her sexy window displays.
Then it’s game on.
Preston Wheeler knows he takes life a little too seriously. But when the saucy bookseller next door starts pushing his buttons, he can feel that changing. Beautiful, vivacious Zoe challenges him in all the best ways, and soon he’s pushing her buttons right back: teasing and flirting all the way through the holiday season.
As Preston loosens up and Zoe is treated to the man behind the suit (particularly his forearms), she realizes she’s more interested than she cares to admit. And Preston comes to see the beauty—the absolute delight—in adding Zoe’s bright splashes of color to his once very black-and-white existence.
by A.C. Arthur, author of Awaken the Dragon
Whenever I’m asked where the inspiration for my stories comes from, the answer inevitably circles around three things: people, places and things. I’m always people-watching and absorbing character traits and flaws. I read books and watch movies that take me to different places. And I have an on-again, off-again, curious streak that draws me to certain things at odd times. I know this seems like a well of inspiration to draw from, but most of my stories boil down to one central element within these three and the rest grows from there.
For my new paranormal romance series, The Legion, it was the movie Black Panther. I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Universe, not the comic books, but the movies. So of course, I was in theaters opening weekend for the release of Black Panther. Because I’d never read the comic books, I really had no idea what to expect from this movie. All I knew was—Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o. Three strong black lead characters were bursting out of this expansive superhero world with beauty, grace and an explosion of black power and elegance. When I left the theater, I knew I’d eventually write a story that captured just a little bit of the magic that movie had exposed.
Fast forward to writing some other books, watching more movies and experiencing life in general and more ideas began to stick in my mind. Pictures I’d seen on Pinterest, concepts I thought I might like to touch on, colors, people who had great voices. Really, it was like a hodgepodge of stuff came to me at different times until I figured I just needed to get some things down on paper.
I’d already had a skeleton of a synopsis written from a couple years ago. It was a story about dragons, but back then I’d just started writing about jaguar shapeshifters, so I didn’t want to start wandering around with too many species. I revisited the old synopsis and found it still spoke to me as a story that I wanted to tell, but not in the same way. I wanted to create a world that was not only steeped in fantasy and mythical lure, but also in cultural history and depth. So, the dragon met the African demigoddess.
Not only was I naturally drawn to my African heritage, but I especially related to the Orishas, with their spiritual connection and their power which was drawn from nature. There was a purity and humanity in them that I found innately interesting. And while dragon shapeshifter stories weren’t new to the genre, combining their majestic power with the sometimes quiet, but steadfast strength of a black woman—a demigoddess—gave me a feeling of invigoration and a desire to create a world where this combined excellence could lead and bring about change.
The first book in The Legion series is Awaken the Dragon. This is the meeting and discovery story, the first step to greatness is how I thought about it as I wrote. Not in that I thought the words I put on page were great, but that the story that I was beginning to tell might at some point take on a greater meaning. Theo and Shola, the protagonists, are both on a journey of learning, exploring and, in the end, standing firm in their truth and their destiny. Of course, at this point they don’t know where that destiny will lead, but it’s a first step for them and the others who will follow behind them. And it’s a first step into a love affair that neither ever imagined. Yeah, that sounds cliché for a romance book, but believe me when I say these two people were on such focused and decisive paths that left no room for venturing off course that the love and attraction did blindside them—and everyone around them, as well. But love will be the driving force behind their success. This will be true for every other couple brought together in this series. While the world around them is a dumpster fire and will cast them into one dangerous situation after another, they’ll each cling to the love blooming inside to find their place and purpose. Alpha men, strong women, dark entities, dooming curses, and a blending of cultural biases, myths and eventually revelations, will be featured in this series. It is my hope that every reader will come along for the ride.
About Awaken the Dragon:
He’s sworn to protect the very entity she was born to kill…
Next in line for the Drakon throne, Theo Masters is the most powerful half human, half dragon in the world. Royal power is the last thing he wants, however. He lives as a human and runs the Legion Security Company. But his new client—a mysterious, beautiful human from a small African village—and the unknown danger she faces may forever change the quiet life that he’s chosen.
Shola N’Gara exists to kill the dark spirit that is attempting to demolish her people. It’s her purpose and her destiny. The gorgeous protector who taunts her with his sexy voice and body is not—especially after he shifts into a magnificent black dragon with turquoise eyes.
A rise in demon activity and the brutal murders Theo’s agents have been reporting start to add up. Someone is making a play, and it’s big enough to change the course of the world as they know it. Now Shola must choose between her destiny and her heart. And Theo must decide if standing by the woman he’s fallen in love with is worth facing his father in a battle to the death.