What do commercial publishers really want from new writers? Not what they tell us

Photo by Wonderlane on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Surfing social media a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to an article from Penguin Random House, one of the Big 5 worldwide publishers called “What Our Editors Look for on an Opening Page.”

It was advice for writers who wanted to have their manuscripts published by a big commercial publisher like one of Penguin Random House’s imprints. But rather than advice, it’s really just reinforcing the narrative that the big publishing houses put out good books — when the truth is that they don’t take chances on good books from new authors. As proof, let’s look at the opening pages of the latest releases from Penguin.

Let’s look at what they say they look for in a manuscript from a new writer

1.      “A powerful opener”

is the most important thing, because it’s the first thing that editors see. If the opening doesn’t grab them, they’ll move onto the next submission in the slush pile.

For example, consider Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins. It was published last year by G.P Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Group, which is a subsidiary of Penguin Random House:

Jesse Stone no longer felt adrift. No longer a man caught between two coasts, he had finally left his days as an L.A. homicide detective behind him. If not his private shame at how his life had gone to hell. He was chief of police in Paradise, Mass. This was his town now. Yet there were still some things about the East Coast and the Atlantic he had never gotten used to and wasn’t sure he ever would. Nor’easters, for one. He found the brooding, slate-gray clouds and rolling tides a little unnerving. These late-fall or winter storms seemed to blow up out of spite, raking across whole swaths of New England or the Mid-Atlantic, leaving nothing but pain their wake.

As was his habit, he drove through the darkened streets of Paradise in his old Ford Explorer before heading home. He wanted to get a few hours’ sleep before going back to work. Maybe a drink, too. The storm wasn’t supposed to make landfall until about midnight, but the winds were bending trees back against their will, sleet already pelting his windshield. Jesse shook his head thinking about that. About how storms in the east warned you they were coming. About how they told you when they were coming and then kicked your ass.

Sorry, this doesn’t count as powerful. It’s an info dump, paragraphs of back story — exactly the kind of opening all the advice blogs and creative writing courses tell you not to write. Get to the story.

For all you writers out there, this opening breaks one of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules: “Never start with the weather.”

Of course, The Devil Wins was not written by Robert Parker, who died in 2010. Reed Farrel Coleman, a successful mystery novelist in his own right, won the contract to continue the Jesse Stone series.


Speaking of information dumps, consider the opening of the newest volume in the Boys of Fall teen romance series by Shannon Stacey, published by Jove, another Penguin imprint.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room with a pack of scared and sweaty teenage boys while wearing a little black dress and high heels wasn’t Jen’s idea of a fun Friday night.

Nothing could have dragged her out of there, though. Not even the promise of flip-flops and her favorite yoga pants. The police officer leaning against the wall and staring at the ceiling was Kelly McDonnell, one of her best friends. Kelly had been the first to arrive when the 911 call came in from football practice. Kelly’s dad—Coach McDonnell—had collapsed on the high school’s field and they were afraid he was having a heart attack.

When Kelly called her from the emergency room, Jen had been in her car on her way to a second date with the first guy in a long time who actually had potential to make her forget the man she spent too much time thinking about, but she hadn’t even hesitated before cancelling. Kelly needed her.

That’s a lot of data crammed into three paragraphs, and there’s been no action, yet. Just a girl in a party dress, sitting in a hospital waiting room.

2.      Unique perspective – ““What is one thing this book does better than any other book?”

Consider The Madmen of Benghazi, by Gérard de Villiers.

Ibrahim al-Senussi was stark naked when he stepped out of the shower, and he stopped dead at his bedroom door. Cynthia was sitting on the edge of the big bed, making a call on her cell phone. That wasn’t sexy in itself, but between the lapels of the young woman’s Chanel suit—his birthday present to her—he could see her nipples straining against the raw-silk blouse.

Cynthia’s shapely legs were bare from her upper thigh to her tawny, very high-heeled boots. The length of her skirt had once been quite proper—until she had the hem raised.

Al-Senussi felt the blood rushing to his crotch.

This does not do anything better than thousands of other books out there. In fact, it’s just plain bad writing. Who isn’t stark naked when they step out of the shower, other than drunks?

3.      Attention-Grabbing Characters

Consider the opening of Danielle Steel’s Rushing Waters, published August 30, 2016:

Ellen Wharton was pensive as she studied the clothes she had hung on a rolling rack, and the folded items she had laid out on the bed for her trip to New York. Organized, impeccable, meticulous, she was a woman who planned everything and left nothing to chance—her business, her menus, her wardrobe, her social life. She was consummately careful and precise about everything she did. It made for a smooth, order life, with few surprises, but also very little opportunity for things to go awry. She had been planning this trip to New York since June, as she did every year, to see her mother. She also went on Thanksgiving every other year, and she usually went once in spring. She intended to do some shopping for two of her clients, and she had an additional purpose to her trip this time.

Ellen ran a successful interior design business, with three assistants, a color specialist, and clients in several cities in Europe who loved her work. She created beautiful environments for them …

For decades, Danielle Steele has been on bestseller lists with title after title. She’s popular. But that opening does not portray an attention-grabbing character. She strikes me like any number of uptight business people who think they can control the universe.

This opening also breaks a rule from all the creative writing classes: “Show me, don’t tell me.” If I submitted this to an editor, I’d be told to describe how she carefully folded every item of clothing, how she entered appointments into her daytimer, how she checked her airline tickets for Thanksgiving. But Danielle Steele has enough bestsellers behind her, and enough of a fan base to write whatever she damn well wants.

But they sell

Yes, they do. The success of these books supports arguments I have been making for years:

  • The accepted tropes of creative writing classes do not translate into sales. Readers don’t care about Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Only writers and editors do.
  • Commercial publishers do not necessarily publish quality fiction.

“But you can’t blame a commercial business for making money.”

I don’t. What I blame the commercial publishing industry for is their snobbish pretense that only they can produce quality prose. And for not pushing for better, fresher, more innovative fiction and non-fiction. And for contracting a writer to continue a dead writer’s series, instead of publishing that living writer’s original work.

Some of the Big 5’s titles are examples of great writing. The Girl on the Train is a timely example. But some of the most innovative and gripping work is published by individual, independent, self-publishing authors.

What I want you to do

Don’t settle for commercial quality. If you like good books, look down the lists for independent authors. And if you want to find some of the best, check out these two independent authors’ groups:

And tell me what you think of the books on those sites.


Writing tip: When “inappropriate” is inappropriate

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Last week, someone wrote racist comments under a story on the Ottawa Citizen’s online edition, about the death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook. Charles Bordeleau, Ottawa’s Chief of Police, called the comments “inappropriate.”

“I can tell you that the comments are inappropriate. They don’t reflect the values of the members of the Ottawa Police Service, they don’t reflect the values of this organization, and they certainly don’t reflect my values,” he said in an interview with the Ottawa Morning CBC radio program.

That’s the standard response when we’re confronted with expressions of racism or sexism, or any other sentiment that goes against the values we claim to espouse: “That’s inappropriate.”

But is it? What does “inappropriate” actually mean?

According to the Oxford dictionary: “not appropriate, not suitable.”

Which takes us to “appropriate”: suitable or proper

Is that what the Police Chief meant — that racist comments are not suited to the occasion?

Why not say they’re “objectionable,” “offensive” or “wrong”?

A living language

Every so often, we notice that words have changed meaning. Sometimes it’s through appropriation, like “gay” or “tweet.” The Internet — or more accurately, marketing people at companies that transact primarily via the Internet — is responsible for most of the recent examples, from “spam” to “friend” to “cloud.”

Words not only shift meaning. They also drop out of the common vocabulary. Often, we stop using words because they feel old-fashioned, like “thither.” Sometimes, we stop using words because they seem associated with ideas that we no longer agree with. No one calls anyone a “blackguard” or a “handmaid” anymore.

A living language changes over time, for many reasons.

Inappropriate is a weasel word

I think the impetus behind calling objectionable ideas or statements “inappropriate” is weaselism. That is, the urge to weasel out of responsibility for your own convictions.

To avoid confrontation, we’ll tell someone their actions or words are “inappropriate,” instead of “racist” or “sexist” or just plain wrong, of stirring up evil.

Saying “inappropriate” gives you a way out, too, if for whatever reason the argument goes against you. It gives you an escape route.

It’s a form of cowardice.

It’s weak. It’s inappropriate in itself as a response to racism — not suited to the need. Like a cardboard goalie mask.

Courtesy Wikipedia.org

I’m not going to use “inappropriate” inappropriately anymore. If I object to a statement or an action, I’m going to say so, and say why.

What about you?

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever: Independent book review

fndlfcoverCaleb Pirtle III has proven that he’s an original writer. His books do not follow the usual tropes and stereotypical genre tales, whether he’s writing mysteries, sports stories or anything else. He’s not a genre writer — he’s writing modern American literature disguised as genre books.

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, his latest release, is an excellent tale, told in the author’s trademark  staccato, declarative and lucid style that brings the reader not just into the scene, but behind the character’s eyes.

An original plot

Set in the mid-1980s, the story of Friday Nights starts where the typical high school sports story ends: at the state championship game.

The high school in the small town of Avalon, Alabama, has had an underdog football team for decades. But this year, the team has been blessed with the golden arm of Casey Clinton, and the almost magical abilities of wide receiver Lucas Calhoun. In game after game, play after play, Casey has managed to find Lucas, who has caught every pass.

The state championship game attracts scouts from college football programs who want to see whether Casey is for real. But the night of the big game, it rains. In the final minute, with Avalon needing just one more touchdown to win, as Casey winds up for the forward pass, his foot slips in the wet mud. He falls, his pass goes wide, Lucas cannot reach it and Avalon loses.

It’s all over. There will be no more Friday night glory for Avalon, for Casey, Lucas, coach “Balls” Baldwin, nor anyone else in Avalon.

But it’s not over. It’s only early December, and the school year stretches ahead. The story continues through December by juxtaposing the experiences of Casey and Lucas.

For Casey, December is a season of continual phone calls from scouts from high-profile college football scouts, including the legendary Frank Hatchett, longtime head of the football program at the University of Alabama.

Casey feels the pressure of not just competing coaches who tempt him with scholarships, cars and sex, but also from his family, who want him to bring glory to them as well as the town; town leaders with competing interests; his wide receiver but never friend, Lucas Calhoun; and of course his teasing, virginal girlfriend, the cheerleader Chelsea Sinclair.

Lucas, meanwhile, the other half of the magical team that brought so many touchdowns and so much glory to the Avalon high school, is completely ignored. No scouts call him. The coach doesn’t talk to him, the rest of the football team shuns him. Chelsea, the “Virginal Queen” of Avalon, actively scorns and bullies him because he’s “trash.”

The contrast becomes starkest when the Alabama football program invites Casey to come see the Cotton Bowl in Texas, where they’re playing for the holy grail of college football. Lucas, in the meantime, begs Casey, whom he despises, for a scholarship, too, if he accepts a scholarship from a competing college.



Caleb Pirtle III, author of Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle’s lean style drives the reader through the story, where we meet many three-dimensional supporting characters like Brother Bailey Proctor, the sex-hating Baptist preacher; his frustrated, sexy wife, Karen; “Crazy Legs” Epperson, who was once a football star but whose scholarship hopes were destroyed by an injury; “Balls” Baldwin, the football coach, who allowed himself to hope for a state championship before he retired, but sank back into defeat; and Lucas’ alcoholic, father, Charlie. Readers quickly come to hate Charlie, for good reason.

A drunk who abandoned the family when Lucas was small, Charlie began to pay attention to Lucas during the final football season to try to get some reflected glory on himself. But after the team loses the championship game, Charlie is mostly out of the picture again until a murder in the second half of the book. The author’s skill allows him to achieve not redemption, but a little sympathy by the end.

Of course, as quarterback and captain of the football team, Casey’s girlfriend is the head cheerleader, Chelsea Sinclair. But Pirtle does not let stereotypes lie quiet. Chelsea is a clever little bitch with an agenda, simultaneously promising and withholding sex to keep her boyfriend on a short leash.

Bottom line

I read an advance copy in return for an honest review. As such, I found a number of minor typographical errors in the version that I read. But the story and the writing style rise far above those issues. This is an excellent read by a polished, professional author who knows his subject and his characters intimately.

Buy and read this book. You won’t be disappointed.


Find it on Amazon.

Interviewing the book reviewers

BrookeTramFor the third time, we’re turning the tables on book critics and reviewers, asking them what makes them tick and why they review books the way they do. This week, it’s good friend and fellow iAi member Frederick Lee Brooke, who in addition to being an author of six books himself, is also a prolific reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads.

What genres do you review?

I review most of the books I read, because I think we do a service to other readers when we summarize our impressions of a book. So asking which genres I review is the same as asking which ones I read: mysteries, thrillers, psychological thrillers, biographies, literary novels, some science fiction.

Why do you prefer those genres? What do you get out of them?

I like reading mysteries and thrillers because there’s a set structure, whether it’s a story about a serial killer or a kidnapping or whatever. There’s something satisfying about revisiting that structure over and over again. I also like spending time again and again with detectives I’ve come to know, whether it’s Karin Slaughter’s Faith or Gae-Lynn Woods’s Cass Elliot. In any book I read, I expect to meet characters who are tested by their circumstances, and I expect them to read true.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

I look for characters who ring true, who develop into interesting full-blooded people before my eyes. I look for surprises in every chapter. I look for good writing that makes me sit up, including dialogue that sounds real, and interior stuff that makes me ponder. I look for a story and a conflict that matters, that has some weight to it.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

I keep reading books by big name authors that are full of clichés, and I’m surprised to encounter them. Clichés in the language used, or in descriptions of characters. Another thing I hate is when a narrator has gaps in their story due to their own drunken blackouts, as in Girl on the Train. I feel ripped off.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

It’s very off-putting when authors basically go on Facebook or Twitter with twenty-six versions of “Please buy my latest book”. I think authors need to put their books out there, and put themselves out there, and trust the reading public to find them. I wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans from a guy blocking my way in the street, pointing to a rack of jeans for sale; I would be sure to give him a wide berth. But when I need a new pair of jeans, I go where I know I can find jeans, and pick out a pair I like.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style?

If the characters aren’t fleshed out and real, I won’t read the book. If the characters are totally unique and unforgettable, like Harry Potter and his friends, just to name one well-known example, the story and the style both fade in importance. However, poor writing (style) can sink a story with well-drawn characters as well.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal.

Creative Commons

In the realm of psychological thrillers I greatly admire Gillian Flynn, and her books Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But I also find the less well-known Cody McFadyen fascinating. I think these two authors are exploring the grungier side of human nature in absolutely spellbinding detail.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players).

Prince’s Purple Rain would be in my bag, and Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight, and then maybe a Motown Mix with some Temptations, Marvin Gaye and other classics.

Thank you very much, Fred!

Frederick Lee Brooke recently completed his dystopian science-fiction Drone Wars trilogy with The Drone Wars, which was preceded by Saving Raine in 2013 and Inferno in 2014.

DroneWars3a3319-inferno_ebookcover1c103-saving_raine_cover_final_600px_72ppiHe launched the Annie Ogden Mystery Series in 2011 with Doing Max Vinyl and followed with Zombie Candy in 2012, a book that is neither about zombies nor sweets. The third mystery in the series, Collateral Damage, appeared in 2013.

A resident of Switzerland, Fred has worked as a teacher, language school manager and school owner. He has three boys and two cats and recently had to learn how to operate both washing machine and dryer. He makes frequent trips back to his native Chicago.

When not writing or doing the washing, Fred can be found walking along the banks of the Rhine River, sitting in a local cafe, or visiting all the local pubs in search of his lost umbrella.
b1551-collateraldamagehirescover ZombieCandy2


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I wasn’t eaten by a bear


Seven out of ten Missinaibi paddlers on the day we set out. That’s me, third from the left, with Super Nicolas in the steering position behind me. The reason for the helmets? We were running rapids, which means big rocks all around.

But I have to admit I came close to losing my cool a couple of times

If you’ve missed me on social media since July 30, here’s why: I’ve been literally hundreds of miles from Internet access. Besides being the most physically challenging thing I have ever done, this “vacation” made me rediscover some things about writing.

Over the past two weeks, I joined my younger son, Super Nicolas and eight other people to paddle the Missinaibi River in northern Ontario to the Moose River, and then down it to Moose Factory and Moosonee on James Bay. It was 11 days of paddling eight to ten hours a day. On some days, we paddled over 50 kilometres to reach our next camp site. Other days, we faced portages up to three kilometres long.


One of the few pictures to survive: me at the monument to paddlers at Mattice, Ontario.

We began our paddling journey at Mattice, a tiny village mostly remarkable for being the point where the Missinaibi River crosses Ontario Highway 11. (That’s the same highway that begins at the Toronto waterfront as Yonge Street.) We paddled white-water canoes 325 kilometres from there to Moose Factory, near where the Moose River empties into James Bay. Moose Factory is the site of the oldest Hudson’s Bay Company establishment, or “factory” where the company transferred its traded furs from ships to canoes that ranged inland on Canada’s network of rivers, including the Missinaibi, Abitibi and Mattagami, portaging overland to other river systems that brought all of North America in reach.

From Moose Factory, we paddled across the river to the newer town of Moosonee. At its train station, we loaded our canoes, gear and ourselves onto the Polar Bear Express, a train operated by Ontario Northland Railway. We rode back to Cochrane, Ontario, where we had left one car as a shuttle to get the others in Mattice.

Eagles every day

There are so many remarkable things about paddling through northern Ontario, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the beauty of the landscape, first of all.

Mattice is on the Canadian Shield, the geography where I grew up. The journey to putting in the canoes felt a little like coming home.

The Shield is a rocky place, mostly low, rolling hills with many outcroppings of bare rock and cliffs, covered with spruce and fir trees, dotted with thousands of lakes and marshes. It carries a huge feeling of wildness. Once we left Mattice, we did not come within hundreds of kilometres of any human civilization until Moose Factory.

This landscape is as wild as wild gets. We carried in our own food, supplemented by fish that one of the members of our team, Gil Lepine, caught nearly every day. We also carried out all our garbage as we believe in no-trace camping. We camped on the shore of the river, several times on beaches, and dealt with the mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies and deer flies as best we could.

We saw at least one bald eagle every day, along with loons, geese and other birds. Except for squirrels, we not see much other wildlife — no sign of bears, deer or moose. I did see some wolf footprints on one beach, and took photos of it. Unfortunately, on the second-last day of the trip, I knocked my waterproof camera out of the canoe into the Moose River. Any pictures are contributed by others in my group. Alas.

Far, far away from the Internet

MapofMissinaibiOur only means of communications with the outside world were a SPOT geo-locator, which we activated once a day. It communicated our longitude and latitude to a satellite, which then sent emails saying “we’re okay” along with our coordinates to our loved ones in civilization. We also had a satellite phone for emergencies.

The only way I can say I missed the Internet was any kind of automatic uploading of my photos to the cloud.

Along the way, I’d sometimes think about how I would post all my pictures to Facebook and create a photo essay for this blog. Alas, again.

I recorded some of my thoughts and impressions on paper in a notebook, as did Nicolas. We each plan to work those notes up into some kind of story about the journey. But to tell the truth, I’ll have to rely on memory more than on notes. Each night, I was too tired to write more than a few words.

When we returned, one of the members asked “I wonder how many stupid things Donald Trump said over the last two weeks, when we were away.”

“Fourteen,” I ventured — one for each day.

Persuasive communications

Why did I take this on? Moose Factory and James Bay have always intrigued me, and since I first heard about the Polar Bear Express as a child, I’ve wanted to ride it.

But the real initiator of this trip was my son, Super Nicolas. When he was in Venturers (a part of Scouting), he somehow discovered the idea of paddling the Missinaibi to Moose Factory and taking the Polar Bear Express back. He made a presentation to his Venturer Company, who were, like him, 16 or 17  years old at the time. I still remember the slack-jawed shock they all showed. None of them wanted to do it. They thought it was just too challenging.

Undaunted, Nicolas presented the idea to the entire Scouting organization of the Ottawa area. His presentation caught the imagination of some adult Scouting members, but in the end, Nicolas was the only “youth” member of the group to go, at age 21.

It was a lot of work, took a lot of planning and commitment and cooperation. But as Nicolas said, “It’s a dream come true.”

Two new communications projects

Besides learning just what I am capable of (paddling all day long for two weeks; shooting Level II rapids) and not (sleeping comfortably in a tent night after night for two weeks), I came away from this with two new ideas for books.

The first is the obvious one: a recounting of the journey, something like “Paddling with Super Nicolas.” The second comes from a discovery I made in Mattice.

FredNeegancropAs we were preparing to launch the canoes, a man approached us on a four-wheel off-road vehicle. He’s Fred Neegan, a Cree man who has lived on the Missinaibi his whole life, having paddled up and down it many times. Now 85 years old, he’s called the “Guardian of the Missinaibi,” and there’s a monument to him, with his likeness, at the Mattice put-in. Fred warned us about the low water levels and gave us some other valuable advice about paddling to Moosonee. He also told us some of the interesting history of the river and some of the troubling aspects of being Cree in northern Ontario, even today. I asked if I could talk to him about his life story, and if I can manage it, I’d like to write the book about the Guardian of the Missinaibi.

Another story to come!



Stories from the War: Friends of my Enemy, Book 1

StoriesFromWarBy Autumn Birt

An independent book review

I was a little nervous as I read the first chapter in Stories from the War. I like Autumn Birt’s writing and I enjoyed her fantasy series, Rise of the Fifth Order. So I was intrigued by her shift from epic fantasy to dystopian military thriller with Friends of My Enemy.

Hopes high, I was a little put off by the opening of the first Story from the War, First Meeting. It’s a lunch meeting between two main characters: Arinna Prescott, a military attaché from the USA and an EU diplomat who happens to be a baron. I thought, “Oh, no. She’s trying to evoke some kind of Regency romance here, but set it in the future.”

I was also a little afraid that Stories from the War would follow the worn path of the military dystopian future, where an ex-soldier’s military training and discipline is the only thing that ensures the survival of a small group while civilization deteriorates into rival warlord territories.

But while this book starts with the U.S. under military law and Europe renews aristocratic ranks and privileges. As I read on, I felt myself drawn deeper and deeper into Autumn Birt’s universe. I really could not put it down.

Stories from the War is not a novel.

It’s a set of 11 stories about a small group of realistic characters. First are Lieutenant Arinna Prescot, who meets a diplomat, Baron Bryan Vasquez, in Spain. Their conversation, which opens the story, skillfully sets the stage of the whole series. We learn that by 2055, the United States is under military law, beset by famine and riots. Climate change has brought storms that even the Americans could not recover from. Arinna’s and her husband, Air Force Captain Michael Prescott, have been sent to Europe in order to help rebuild the diplomatic relationship between the “New States” and the united Europe.

The characters are the best element of this very strong book. Sure, some of them are pretentious blowhards, some are conceited jerks, and some are hopeless romantics. But we all know some people like that. I don’t like all the characters, but I believe in all of them.

The stories are episodes in the lives of these characters, and each episode develops their relationships. These relationships drive the plot, or rather, its exposition. We see this new war that develops and how it affects each individual.

One of the few weakness is that the “enemy” is never clearly identified.

The U.S. was destroyed by repeated storms and famine, but soon after the Prescots’ arrival in Europe, a mysterious organization called the Freedom Liberation Front strikes the U.S. and completes its destruction. The Prescots calculate their chances and join the EU, rising in NATO’s military as the FLF turns on Europe.

Throughout the book, the FLF remains distant and shadowy. It’s not until probably four-fifths of the way through the book that the POV characters come face-to-face with the enemy, and even then they’re not that close. It helps to make the enemy that much more sinister, but it is frustrating not to know what they really want.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.


Author Autumn Birt

The characters, particularly Arinna, who becomes known as “The Lady Grey” are strong and very well drawn. The reader sees through their eyes, feels what they feel. The descriptions are so vivid I can practically smell the smoke and feel the heft of weapons in my hands.

Congratulations to Autumn Birt on creating another vivid fictional world to explore.


Get Stories from the War on

Find out more about the author

And follow her on Twitter @weifarer.


Independent book review: One Upon a [Stolen] Time

OnceUponAStolenTimeThe perfect haunted castle story
By Samreen Ahsan

The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true” is the starting point for this story. Myra Farrow is a romantic young woman from London, UK, who is obsessed with stories about medieval knights and princes. She wants to be part of history, and wishes she were a real medieval princess. Frustrated with the impossibility of that, she reads medieval English history, literature and poetry, even making it the subject of her university degree.

Her parents have indulged her to the point of visiting every old castle and manor in the UK, except for one that’s abandoned and closed: the totally fictitious Hue Castle.

Myra’s parents, who run a successful business in London, are concerned that their daughter lives more in the past than the here-and-now, so they arrange a marriage for her to Steve Bernard, scion of one of the UK’s wealthiest and most powerful families.

But Steve isn’t just the inheritor of wealth. He’s actually a successful video game entrepreneur, and while he isn’t interest in Myra romantically, he does want her to be a model for shooting scenes for his new medieval-themed video game. And as coincidence will have it, Steve has chosen the abandoned, yet lifeless Hue Castle for his setting.

Hue Castle has all the necessary elements for a very spooky setting, like prison towers, dungeons and instruments of torture. But the most dangerous thing is a shrouded mirror. When Myra looks into it, she sees scenes from six hundred years ago, the vicious cruelty that brought down a curse so extreme that nothing grows at Hue Castle — no plants, not even rats live there.

As Myra returns to look into the mirror, she’s increasingly drawn into the lives of those dead for six centuries, and gradually, she begins to hear them and finally contacts Edward, the crown prince of England in 1415. Myra wonders whether she can even enter that time, and if she does, whether she would be able to return.


Ahsan’s strength is creating believable, familiar characters, and Myra is another example. She’s a romantic, obsessed with her fantasies of kings and princes and knights, but she is far from one-sided. She dreams about being rescued by a handsome knight, but she’s not weak. She’s a complex, modern woman who likes her cell phones and clothes, and her freedom and independence.

Steve is a complex man, too, who undergoes a transformation through the book and comes to love Myra for who she is. This sets up a love triangle and another level of conflict in Myra, who is already trying to choose between the past and the present.

Perhaps the most complex, appealing character is the tortured Edward Hue, the prince and son of the cruel (fictitious) King Stefan. You really feel for this character, and I was surprised by how fully Ahsan has realized this character.


The only thing I didn’t like about this story was the framing device, the overly complex way she has set up the story, with Myra being set up by her parents with Steven, who is not interested in her at first. I understand why Ahsan chose the billionaire genius guy and the smart, regular girl structure for her previous two-volume Prayer series (A Silent Prayer and A Prayer Heeded). She was showing what a love story like 50 Shades could be if handled by a writer with skill and talent. But there is no need for that here. Neither is there a need for the marriage to be arranged. Steve could have just hired Myra to be his model, and gradually fallen in love with her. It would have made the story simpler and allowed the author to get to the action quicker.

But that’s a minor point. This is a mesmerizing story that keeps you swiping your e-reader to get to the next page. It’s well worth a read.

Get it on Amazon.

What book reviewers want: An interview with Janie Felix


Once again this week, Written Words turns the tables on the book reviewers by asking them questions. In this instalment, Janie Felix agreed to let us in on the secrets of book reviewing.

What genres do you review?

I review most all genres — whatever I read, because I find it helpful when I read others reviews.

I like mystery/police/ action genres.  They challenge my mind, hold my interest and allow for escape from normal life.  I like some romance, but not ” bodice ripper” types.  I like reality in romances, not necessarily happily ever after … realism.  I enjoy some sci-fi if it is relatable.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

What I look for in books is believable character development by the author.  I like surprise twists.  I also look for good beta reading (I really hate misspelled words, poor grammar and bad syntax.)  When I find an author whose style I enjoy, I veraciously read their books.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

The worst mistake and author can make: boring, long convoluted explanations by a character.  And shabby proofreaders.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

Promoting a book can be tricky. I’m not sure I dislike most book promotions. I really LIKE when an author of e-books offer their first one free. Very often if I like their style or characters, I will continue to follow them and buy more just by the “credit ” of their name alone.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style?

Characterization is probably the most important part of a book for me.  If the characters become real, you can put them in most any plot and they survive.  ‘Course that all goes back to the author. So it is circular.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal.

The Stand is a book with great characters the writers can aspire to.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players).

Albums: David Brubeck’s Take Five,  the 1812 Overture or any Tchaikovsky work and anything by James Taylor.

All about Janie

 IMG_1051Janie has been married for 52 years to her best friend, Gary. She is a mom of four a grandmom of seven, a Wiccan High Priestess, a clinical herbalist and an avid reader.  She is 72 years young and loves to quilt, preserve what her husband grows and teach others about her knowledge of Wicca and herbs. 

What to do when the Internet goes down





Two First Chapter awards in one week

2-FirstPlace-Mystery-page-001My thanks to the East Texas Writers Guild. This year, I entered two books in their First Chapter awards, one in each category: Published Work and Work in Progress.

And this week I learned that both won!

IMG_0020.jpgUnder the Nazi Heel: Book 2 of Walking Out of War, earned Second Place in the Nonfiction/Memoir category.

Dead Man Lying - 529x800And my newest Lei Crime Kindle World entry, Dead Man Lying, won First Place in the Works in Progress category!

At the time of the contest deadline, June 1, Dead Man Lying was indeed in progress. My proofreader, the stalwart Typo Detective, Joy Lorton, had sent me the corrections, and I was still polishing a few items noted by beta readers. I published the story on June 27, in time for a major Facebook launch party along with several other new Lei Crime books.

Two awards in one week — I feel blessed.

Thanks to everyone who helped: beta readers, editors, proofreaders, other writers in the Lei Crime world, and especially all the readers who have pushed Dead Man Lying into bestseller status.