Writing Happily Ever Afters for Black Queer Characters

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by Jayce Ellis, author of Jeremiah

Jeremiah came to me in the spring of 2017, while my then-fiancé and I were doing God-knows-what to prepare for our summer wedding. Something I didn’t care about, like place settings and linens. But I was preoccupied, because one of my bridesmaids had asked what I was getting him as a wedding present, and…what? It hadn’t even crossed my mind (in my defense, we were together for over a decade before we got married—long past the gift-giving stage). Anyway, we’re discussing some mundane thing, and it comes to me. I’m going to write him a love letter. In novel form, because I got  a lot to say. And that will be my present. Jeremiah is the first part of that letter.

The decision marked a literary turning point for me. I’m fairly new to fiction writing, having just started in 2015. And, if we’re keeping it a buck, I first wrote for money, and the landscape was bleak. LGBT+ romance was its own little niche and African-American romance was another niche, because reasons. Writing from my heart, writing for joy and love and to put stories into the world that moved me, meant writing Black  queer characters getting their HEAs. Where do you shelve that? LGBT+ literature? African-American interest? Somewhere under a stack with the other unshelveables?

What I’m writing isn’t new, because tons of authors have been writing Black love for decades before I popped up, and more writing LGBT+ fiction, but there’s no such thing as too much, especially when it’s #ownvoices. And I am as passionate about that as I am about romance and writing in general. There’s a long history of romance with diverse characters where the diversity is like a splotchy coat of paint slapped on the wall, and the rest of the story is Decorator’s White (an actual paint color, not my natural snark shining through). Readers have claimed stories written by people who share the marginalizations of the characters are hard-to-read and unrelatable. And those readers have often included editors and publishers, who are used to seeing a certain type of story, and push those to the exclusion of others. It’s a vicious, head-banging cycle, and I’m grateful to those who paved the way for me to be comfortable writing this series today.

That monologue out of the way, back to the story! Jeremiah is a kind of grumpy guy who doesn’t like change and wants to do his job and go home. Basically, my husband, except for the grump part. Hubby’s way more gregarious, like Jeremiah’s boy Chucky. And Collin, bless his heart, is a hot mess with a ton of insecurities who covers them in glittery lipgloss and short shorts. Huh, this might be a closer representation of me and my spouse than I’d planned. Both of them are on this edge of a sea change, and that can end well or really poorly, and getting there was part of the joy of writing it. Reading back through it and seeing little bits of my husband come through in Jeremiah and, on occasion, Collin, remembering where a certain line or phrase came from, was an absolute blast.

As I set about drafting, I was clear on one thing, about Jeremiah and any books that follow. Race informs who these characters are, how they perceive the world, how they maneuver in it. Because that’s reality, and why it’s so important to have diverse viewpoints and diverse authors writing them. But race isn’t an issue in the stories. It’s not a bone of contention with Collin’s friends or family that Jeremiah is Black, and no eyebrows are raised because Collin is white. I didn’t want to write issue stories. There’s absolutely a place for them, in romance and any other genre. But it was important to me to give an outlet for the same fluffy (or not, depending on your angst tolerance) stories that are the norm for allocishet white couples, and even in a lot of cis LGBT+ romance. There’s no overcoming the racial divide, because these guys have enough to deal with just being themselves.

I’m super proud of how Jeremiah came together, of the relationship between the main characters and their friends and family. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!

About Jeremiah:

Jeremiah by Jayce EllisJeremiah Stewart’s sexuality is no one’s business. Not that he’s hiding it. When—if—he finds the right one, he’ll absolutely introduce him to Mom. But a late-night brush with a sexy stranger in too much lip gloss has him rethinking nearly everything…

To Collin Galloway, direction is a four-letter word. Sure, he hates his job, he hates living with his parents and he really hates watching everyone move on without him. But he doesn’t know what he wants to do, long-term, and he won’t figure it out by thirsting over Jeremiah, the superhot, superintense paramedic who is suddenly everywhere Collin looks.

When Jeremiah’s faced with losing all he’s worked so hard to build, he reluctantly accepts Collin’s help. They’re both determined to stay professional…which works about as well as either would imagine. But Collin only does closets with clothes, and Jeremiah has to decide if he’s finally found the one worth bringing home to Mom.

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First Page Critique: An Estranged Marriage

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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.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press freelance editor Carrie Lofty.

The First Page

Author A described this manuscript as a “queer, melodramatic, romantic, cozy mystery” featuring “a bisexual black female private investigator living in the Midwest who solves ‘love crimes’ with her currently estranged wife.”

Neema woke up slowly. With her eyes still closed, she tried to guess the time by the sunlight hitting her face and the feeling in her bones. 8:20am. Far too late to get to work on time.

Taking full advantage of her tardiness, she gave a lazy stretch against her soft jersey sheets. As her right arm swung through empty air and landed on rough paper, reality set in and she opened her eyes. Ignoring the space beside her and the grief that seized her chest, she glanced at the clock on her wife’s night stand. 8:43am. Later than she expected.

Heaving a sigh, she glanced at the stapled document resting beside her, already knowing what the contents would be. Separation Agreement was written in bold type across the top. The names Neema Hart and Eugenia Hart followed.

The unexpected twist was the bright pink post-it note on top. Dont forget your meeting with ML at 9:30. This could be big for us! – GH.

“Fuck,” Neema groaned to an empty room. But as she launched out of bed and rushed to get dressed, she had a smile on her face. Her wife must have been home in the middle of the night or early morning to leave another copy of the infernal separation agreement. While the post-it reminder was strictly professional, the hopeful side of Neema read into the kindness behind the gesture. And the signature. The signature. Neema closed her eyes for a moment just to think about it, blindly buttoning up her striped oxford as she committed the delicately printed message to memory.

GH. Genie Hart. Not a formal Eugenia. Not a simple Genie. Not a reversion to her maiden name of Rowe. Neema wasn’t a psychologist like her wife, but she felt she’d learned a thing or two during the ten years they’d known one another. The logical side of her wife may have been intent on filing for separation, but her heart was still a Hart. And that was something Neema could work with.

Dressed in black skinny jeans, a pair of Timbs, and an oversized puffer coat, Neema skipped her usual morning coffee to head straight into the office. As she got into the beaten down Camry she’d been driving for the past fifteen years, her cell vibrated with a new text message. Youre late.

The smile on Neema’s face grew, and she bit her lip as her fingers worked quickly to send off a reply. “Love you too, babe.” Work mattered little when her wife was finally speaking to her outside of work again.

They’d specifically chosen their current apartment because of its proximity to their office building. Milwaukee traffic was never truly bad, but since she’d already missed rush hour and most non-working folks were at home trying to avoid below zero temperatures, Neema’s commute was a breeze.

Bouncy was the only word Neema could use to describe her mood when she arrived at their building, and it wasn’t an unusual mood for her. Despite recent struggles in her personal life, Neema couldn’t deny that in most ways, her life was perfect. She was married to the love of her life. Together, they owned a thriving private investigation agency in one of the hippest parts of town. Business was so good that they were looking into expanding their team. And though she had to grin and bear awful Wisconsin winters for what felt like nine out twelve months of the year, Milwaukee was her home. The city was rough around the edges, but so was Neema.

Taking the stairs up to the second floor, she paused on the landing to look at the blocky black print on the frosted glass pane of their office door.

Hart to Hart

P.I. & LPC

Pride filled Neema’s chest. Hart to Hart was more than just a private investigation agency, it had a mission. Genie and Neema were dedicated to helping women, and some men, with all matters of the heart. Neema helped their clients find the answers to their questions through investigative work; and through therapy, Genie helped their clients understand why they needed those answers and what to do once they had them. They were the only full-service private investigation and therapist office in the city and they were making a difference in the lives of women all over the city.

The door swung open and Neema was met with the anxious face of her wife. “Stop being a weirdo and get in here,” Genie ordered. “Mrs. Laghari will be here any minute.” Neema glanced down at her watch. It was already well past 9:30 am. She looked up in question just in time to see her wife roll her eyes. “As if I’d ever let you be late to such an important meeting.”

The Critique

I have a weakness for reconciliation romances. How did they first fall in love? What broke them? What will bring them back together? Reconciliation romances can be rich with emotional backstory, with double the stakes as the partners give it one last shot. They can be difficult to pull off, particularly because of that element of backstory. Too much too quickly can cut the opening momentum of a story, and ideally, the focus should be on the protagonists’ romance this time around. So, it’s a tricky balance.

What can be tricky in any romance is emotional consistency. Even when a character is feeling off-the-wall and scattered, they should do so within the parameters established by the author. I’m writing this in mid-December, so please forgive my holiday example: the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge would not be as powerful if Dickens hadn’t presented such a clear, consistent character from the start. Scrooge doesn’t waffle over whether workhouses are better than death; he has his opinion, and he makes sure we know it. Then, as the ghosts work their magic, we see Scrooge softening by increments until reaching the satisfying conclusion of his redemptive arc.

Without consistency, it can be difficult to follow story arcs, particularly personal and romantic arcs. That means establishing a firm starting point for characters and their circumstances, even if those characters are soon to change drastically.

Here, Neema wakes up to find separation papers (presumably) where her wife should have been. Grief seizes her heart. She curses. It’s “another copy of the infernal separation agreement.” This has me thinking that being presented with the agreement isn’t new, and that it does upset Neema, but those are the only instances I can find about her emotional reaction to being presented with the actual separation papers.

I’m being picky for a reason: These are the opening moments that will define Neema, Genie, and the start of their (redo) romance. Separation papers, by nature, should engender emotions—often very strong ones. Yet I don’t have a consistent picture of Neema’s emotional starting point. The grief aspect is very brief. She moves quickly toward hopefulness because of Genie’s sticky note. Later, Neema smiles at Genie’s “you’re late” text and thinks that “work mattered little when her wife was finally speaking to her outside of work again.” But the text doesn’t seem particularly personal, and it does actually relate to work. Later still, Neema thinks of her life as nearly perfect, with some personal “struggles,” but her bouncy mood counters almost everything that’s come before: the papers, a sense of disconnect from Genie, and the importance of the sticky note.

I like the idea of a multi-faceted PI agency, with a psychological element and a way for people to work through their grief. It’s a nice twist on the hard-boiled clichés. You’ve created the basis for a lot of potential plot yet to come, which is exciting, and almost all of the emotions they find reflected in their clientele could reflect back on their romantic turmoil. However, because my mind was still stuck on those separation papers, I found myself slightly distanced from the agency. Neema is going to work, which happens to be the business she and her wife founded together. To me there feels to be a disconnect between the grief she may be feeling and the “ordinary commute, happy with life” vibe she exhibits upon leaving the house.

I suggest that you carefully consider the emotional arc you want to present for each of your protagonists, particularly in relation to their romantic arc. Where are they starting from? If it’s with those separation papers, why is this yet another copy? Has Neema refused to sign them before? If she’s determined to be hopeful, perhaps show us how she deliberately shoves the negativity away. It could be as simple as ignoring her hurt feelings and fear. It could be as symbolic as throwing the papers away, perhaps now for the second, third, or fourth time. Those details will be important, no matter what they are or when you bring them into play. Eventually their sentiments will change as Neema and Genie fall in love again. By shoring up their initial emotions, you will better ground us as readers in the journey to come.  

Would I keep reading? I would scan the initial conversation between Neema and Genie. However, if the emotional resonance and their reactions to each other continued to feel indistinct or glossed over, I would have to pass.

Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Your turn to add constructive feedback for the author in the comments section!

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, so use them to ask questions or to offer your own critique, but please remember to offer useful criticism. Comments will be moderated and deleted if not deemed to be useful or appropriate.

The Carina Press Holiday Gift Guide

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Carin Press Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us! Do you have everything you need for the readers on your Christmas list this year? These books definitely belong in the stockings (or ereaders) of your loved ones. Here are our top picks for the book lovers in your life!

For the contemporary romance fan…

SAINT by Chantal Fernando:

Saint by Chantal FernandoDear Skylar,

Five years. That’s a long time to go without talking to somebody, especially someone who was such a huge part of your life…


A letter from my first kiss and my childhood everything…from prison.

He may be nicknamed Saint, but this sweet, sexy biker most definitely has a wild streak. Hearing from him draws me right back into the Knights of Fury motorcycle club—the people I’ll always think of as family.

He’s still the only man I’ve ever wanted.

Each good, old-fashioned letter from my “prison pen pal” has my heart racing. Which is nothing compared to how I feel when Saint surprises me in person, as a free man.

I was just a kid the last time we saw each other, but the connection between us now is anything but innocent.

He’s the type of man who would do anything to protect his woman. And with my world crashing down around me, that’s exactly what I’m going to need.

 

HIS TO DEFEND by Rhenna Morgan:

His to Defend by Rhenna MorganBook one of NOLA Knights, the heart-stoppingly sexy spinoff series by Men of Haven author Rhenna Morgan

His world. His rules. Her love.

Though his methods may be rough, when it comes to protecting what’s his, Russian vor Sergei Petrovyh’s heart is always in the right place. That’s never been more true than when the gorgeous Evette Labadie asks him for a job. He knows enough to keep his hands off someone as beloved by the locals as Evie, but there’s something about her that calls to him—no matter how badly he burns to make her his.

Don’t think Evie hasn’t noticed the powerful Russian mafia boss who makes her favorite diner a regular stop. How can she not? He’s as hot as his reputation is dangerous. But everyone in her struggling New Orleans neighborhood knows he’s the man to turn to. And right now she needs money to get her son out of trouble.

Her other needs—needs she knows damn well Sergei can more than satisfy—will have to wait.

Evie soon finds herself playing Cinderella to a man who, despite what people believe, is definitely more prince than villain. She can’t help falling deeper in love with each passing day. But when a turf war between Sergei and a rival brings violence to her doorstep, Evie must come to grips with loving a man who will do anything to defend her…or walk away from her best chance at a happily-ever-after of her very own.

 

THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK by Lucy Parker:

The Austen Playbook by Lucy ParkerFreddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.

She can’t take her eyes off him.

Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.

Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.

As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.

For the sports buff…

GAME CHANGER by Rachel Reid:

Game Changer by Rachel ReidNew York Admirals captain Scott Hunter takes his pregame rituals very seriously. In this case, it’s not just a lucky smoothie he’s craving—it’s the man who made it.

Pro hockey star Scott Hunter knows a good thing when he sees it. So, when a smoothie made by juice bar barista Kip Grady precedes Scott breaking his on-ice slump, he’s desperate to recreate the magic…and to get to know the sexy, funny guy behind the counter.

Kip knew there was more to Scott’s frequent visits than blended fruit, but he never let himself imagine being invited back to Scott’s penthouse. Or kissed with reckless abandon, never mind touched everywhere all at once. When it happens it’s red-hot, incredible and frequent, but also only on Scott’s terms and always behind his closed apartment doors.

Scott needs Kip in his life, but with playoff season approaching, the spotlight on him is suddenly brighter than ever. He can’t afford to do anything that might derail his career…like introducing the world to his boyfriend. Kip is ready to go all-in with Scott—but how much longer will he have to remain a secret?

 

GOALIE INTERFERENCE by Avon Gale & Piper Vaughn:

Goalie Interference by Avon Gale, Piper VaughnIt’s goalie vs. goalie in this brand-new enemies-to-lovers hockey romance from Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn…

Ryu Mori has had a stellar season as goalie for the Atlanta Venom. So when he’s called into management’s office, he’s expecting to hear he’s the new starting goalie for the team, not that some new guy—an incredibly hot, annoyingly bratty rookie—is here to compete for his spot.

Not everyone gets to play in the best league in the world. Emmitt Armstrong knows that, and he’s not about to waste the opportunity after grinding his way from the bottom to the top. If the Venom are looking for a meek, mild-mannered pushover, they’ve got the wrong guy.

Ryu doesn’t want to admit the other goalie’s smart mouth turns him on. Beating Armstrong at practice feels good, sure, but there are other, more fun ways to shut his rival up.

In this league, it’s winner takes all. But there’s more to life than winning, and if Emmitt and Ryu can get past their egos and competitive natures, they might just discover they work better as partners than they ever imagined possible.

For the one who loves mystery & suspense…

FATAL AFFAIR by Marie Force:

Fatal Affair by Marie ForceWalking the thin blue line…  

Detective Sergeant Sam Holland of the Washington, DC, Metro Police needs a big win to salvage her career—and her confidence—after a disastrous investigation. The perfect opportunity arises when Senator John O’Connor is found brutally murdered in his bed, and Sam is assigned to the case. Matters get complicated when Sam has to team up with Nick Cappuano, O’Connor’s friend and chief of staff…and the man Sam had a memorable one-night stand with years earlier. Their sexual chemistry still sizzles, and Sam has to fight to stay focused on the case. Sleeping with a material witness is another mistake she can’t afford—especially when the bodies keep piling up.

 

WOLF AT THE DOOR by Charlie Adhara:

The Wolf at the Door by Charlie AdharaA former FBI agent is partnered with the enemy in this suspenseful male/male shifter romance from debut author Charlie Adhara

Hunting for big bad wolves was never part of Agent Cooper Dayton’s plan, but a werewolf attack lands him in the carefully guarded Bureau of Special Investigations. A new case comes with a new partner: ruggedly sexy werewolf Oliver Park.

Park is an agent of The Trust, a werewolf oversight organization working to ease escalating tensions with the BSI. But as far as Cooper’s concerned, it’s failing. As they investigate a series of mysterious deaths unlike anything they’ve seen, every bone in Cooper’s body is suspicious of his new partner—even when Park proves himself as competent as he is utterly captivating.

When more people vanish, pressure to solve the case skyrockets. And though he’d resolved to keep things professional, Cooper’s friction with Park soon erupts…into a physical need that can’t be contained or controlled. But with a body count that’s rising by the day, werewolves and humans are in equal danger. If Cooper and Park don’t catch the killer soon, one—or both—of them could be the next to go.

 

NO STONE UNTURNED by Julie Moffett:

No Stone Unturned by Julie MoffettEngaged to be Murdered

An engagement is supposed to be a fun, exciting time, but things are never easy for Slash and me. Instead, someone is threatening to expose Slash’s past—a past so secret even I know very little about it.

Before I can get used to the weight of Nonna’s antique ring on my finger, he’s on his way to Rome…and we’re farther apart than we’ve ever been. Still, I have no intention of sitting at home and letting him take on the Vatican by himself. With a little expert-level hacking, I learn Slash is keeping secrets from me. Dangerous ones. In fact, the more I dig into Slash’s past, the more things I discover that could pit us against each other.

From Rome to the Amalfi Coast to the highest levels of the Vatican, we both race to discover the truth. No matter what I find, we’re officially a team now, so I won’t let him face this alone. Even if our relationship might not survive it.

For the LGBT romance fan…

OFF BASE by Annabeth Albert:

Off Base by Annabeth AlbertAfter trading the barracks for a fixer-upper rental, navy SEAL Zack Nelson wants peace, not a roommate—especially not Pike, who sees things about Zack he most wants to hide. Pike’s flirting puts virgin Zack on edge. And the questions Pike’s arrival would spark from Zack’s teammates about his own sexuality? Nope. Not going there. But Zack can’t refuse.

Pike Reynolds knows there won’t be a warm welcome in his new home. What can he say? He’s an acquired taste. But he needs this chance to get his life together. Also, teasing the uptight SEAL will be hella fun. Still, Pike has to tread carefully; he’s had his fill of tourists in the past, and he can’t risk his heart on another, not even one as hot, as built—and, okay, yeah, as adorable—as Zack.

Living with Pike crumbles Zack’s restraint and fuels his curiosity. He discovers how well they fit together in bed…in the shower…in the hallway… He needs Pike more than he could have imagined, yet he doesn’t know how to be the man Pike deserves.

 

AMERICAN DREAMER by Adriana Herrera:

American Dreamer by Adriana HerreraTODAY SHOW BEST NEW BOOK TO READ THIS SUMMER

No one ever said big dreams come easy

For Nesto Vasquez, moving his Afro-Caribbean food truck from New York City to the wilds of Upstate New York is a huge gamble. If it works? He’ll be a big fish in a little pond. If it doesn’t? He’ll have to give up the hustle and return to the day job he hates. He’s got six months to make it happen—the last thing he needs is a distraction.

Jude Fuller is proud of the life he’s built on the banks of Cayuga Lake. He has a job he loves and good friends. It’s safe. It’s quiet. And it’s damn lonely. Until he tries Ithaca’s most-talked-about new lunch spot and works up the courage to flirt with the handsome owner. Soon he can’t get enough—of Nesto’s food or of Nesto. For the first time in his life, Jude can finally taste the kind of happiness that’s always been just out of reach.

An opportunity too good to pass up could mean a way to stay together and an incredible future for them both…if Nesto can remember happiness isn’t always measured by business success. And if Jude can overcome his past and trust his man will never let him down.

 

NEW INK ON LIFE by Jennie Davids:

New Ink on Life by Jennie DavidsQuiet does not equal weak…

Leaving a dependable job to apprentice as a tattoo artist was a drastic step after surviving breast cancer, but Cassie Whiteaker is nearly five years cancer-free. Nearly. She’s not ready to go out on her own until she clears that all-important hurdle. Also off-limits are relationships and sex—something Cassie is sure she’ll never want again.

Struggling tattoo shop owner MJ Flores doesn’t give a damn what people think, but losing Thorn & Thistle would mean losing everything. When her former mentor’s protégé arrives at her door, MJ hires her out of obligation…at first. Cross-stitching goody-goodies are not her type, but Cassie’s business background might just get the shop back on solid footing. They strike a bargain: Cassie will enact new marketing plans and MJ will teach her to find her inner bitch.

Only when clients request to see Cassie—having learned of the beautiful, compassionate tattoos she creates for survivors and their families—does MJ realize all Cassie has endured. And as Cassie’s fears fade, she finds it harder to keep her admiration for her bad-girl boss from reawakening all she’d feared was lost.

For the paranormal & fantasy fanatic…

GODDESS WITH A BLADE by Lauren Dane:

Goddess with a Blade by Lauren DaneThe epic first installment in New York Times bestselling author Lauren Dane’s Goddess with a Blade series.

Rowan Summerwaite is no ordinary woman. Physical vessel to the Celtic Goddess Brigid and raised by the leader of the Vampire Nation, she’s a supercharged hunter with the power to slay any vampire who violates the age-old treaty.

A recent string of murders has her at odds with Las Vegas’s new Scion, the arrogant and powerful Clive Stewart. The killings have the mark of Vampire all over them, and Rowan warns Clive to keep his people in line—or she’ll mete out her own brand of justice.

Though her dealings with Clive are adversarial to say the least, Rowan is intensely aware of her attraction to him. But she can’t let it distract her from her duty—to find and battle the killer before more women die.

 

AWAKEN THE DRAGON by A.C. Arthur:

Awaken the Dragon by A.C. ArthurHe’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.

Looking for more great books? Find more here.

Coming Together Through Music

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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:

In Rhythm by JN WelshSuperstar 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…

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First-Page Critique: A Compromising Position

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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.


The First Page

 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!”


The Critique

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.


Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Email generalinquiries@carinapress.com.

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are closed this month.

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