Writing The Last Empress and Doing The Research

My newest work-in-progress is THE LAST EMPRESS, a steampunk historical fantasy that takes place during the Russian Revolution and is coming, one chapter at a time, to Wattpad.  Check there often for updates and new chapters.

The Last Empress
The Last Empress

This new story is an experiment for me.  It has the trappings of steampunk, a genre of science fiction and fantasy that covers the Victorian era. There are airships, of course, and a nod to one of the great classics of science fiction: The Island of Doctor Moreau by  H.G. Wells. There will be nods to other classics as well in future books of this new series.

There is a historical aspect to the story as well. The main character is Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, an integral part of any story of the period.  Doing the research proved helpful in deciding the type of story I wanted to tell.

Anastasia Romanov, circa 1914 (Wikipedia)
Anastasia Romanov, circa 1914 (Wikipedia)

The real story of Anastasia is quite tragic. She was the youngest of four daughters of the powerful Romanov family, last of the Russian tsars. As Russia’s armies were thrown in retreat during the First World War, social revolution and an overthrow of the monarchy took hold. The Romanovs were forced out of power and into exile. Put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks, they were moved from Siberia to a house in the city of Yakaterinburg. In July 1918, not long after Ana’s seventeenth birthday, the Romanovs and their loyal servants were sent to a room in the basement and told to wait. Red Guards entered the room and executed all of them. They were buried in an unmarked grave and only recently were all of their remains possibly identified.

Ana’s story became legendary. The circumstances of the Romanovs and their deaths led to speculation that Anastasia and other children somehow escaped. A famous impostor surfaced in the 1920s, claiming to be Anastasia but was a Polish woman with suspected mental health issues.

Most people’s experience with Anastasia comes from two sources. There is the famous movie: Nicholas and Alexandra, which featured the courtship, marriage and final days of the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Russia.  The other is an animated musical by Don Bluth (creator of Fiefel the Mouse in An American Tail) called Anastasia.  The full-length Nicholas and Alexandra is the better and more historically accurate of the two. The animated movie rewrites history, badly, and completely glosses over the revolt of the Russian people, the incarceration and exile of the Romanovs and their execution.

The execution and the cloak of secrecy behind it led to stories of Ana’s possible escape. One of the interesting facts was that the Romanovs had jewels and other valuables sewn into their traveling clothes. The royal family thought they would be released and hid the treasures in their clothes to barter for transportation and other necessities. Shot at almost point-blank range, many guards testified they found some Romanovs were still alive (protected by the valuables in their clothes) and had to bayonet them to finish them off.

Another rumor to the deaths of the royal family comes from Great Britain. King George V, first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, wanted to help the royal family. It was speculated that the head of Britain’s intelligence service was asked to develop a plan to rescue them. But the rise of socialism and hatred of monarchies was spreading to England, and the king’s advisers told the king to stay out of Russia’s problems.

These interesting side-notes helped forge the story line of The Last Empress.  I hope you discover how I integrated facts with fiction and follow along as new chapters are posted to Wattpad.





ZAK CORBIN Clears 800K Reads on Wattpad

Something wonderful happened over the past couple of days, ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES cleared 800,000 reads. Wonderful stuff!

Zak Corbin on Wattpad
Zak Corbin on Wattpad

Thanks to all for making ZAK such a popular book. And yes, the screenplay is available and out there trying to generate some interest. A link to the PDF is here, if you’re intrigued:

Zak Corbin and The Master of Machines by Tony Russo


DO NOT ENGAGE: The New/Old Way Writers Deal with Readers

An interesting article first appeared on my Facebook timeline, then crept slowly into Salon‘s website,  about an author going beyond the norm concerning a blogger who gave her book a 1-star review on the Goodreads website.  I thought I might discuss it here because it does concern writing and the folks you hope will be reading.

The author, Kathleen Hale, went into detail in an article posted on The Guardian about her battle with the internet troll who gave her YA book a 1-star review on Goodreads. Now if you’re not familiar with Goodreads (and yes I’m a member too), it’s an Amazon-owned website where readers can identify popular books and review them.

In the new order of publishing this is a good thing; reviews are what drives folks to buying and reading a book for themselves. But the sword is double-edged. Goodreads has come under scrutiny not only because its owned by a web giant whose own website reviews can cause mayhem to an author’s perceived sales  (Amazon Vine readers, anyone?) but there are incidents of authors demanding reviewers who post poor reviews to take the comments back or remove them. The reviewers mounted a campaign of their own, stylized under the initials ABB (Authors Behaving Badly), where a collection of reviewers would trounce an author’s book and the writer to get even for authors who engaged with them.

Hale didn’t like the one-star review she received. On Goodreads (and other places), the YA market is tight and its fans can propel some titles into bestseller status simply on the nature of reviews.  So Hale turned obsessive: trying to figure out the reviewer’s name, get her address and meet with her personally to make the blogger take those wrong things back. The Internet stalker was being stalked, so to speak. Hale even reached out to other authors who experienced this form of trolling to see if anything could be done. One author made it quite clear (although Hale completely ignored the advice):


So this (and you should read Salon’s article, as well as the original in The Guardian to get all the details) took me on a thought-drive in the park. I’m a writer. I have a self-published book on Goodreads and Amazon. The book has reviews, some good, some middling. However it never dawned to me that I should NEVER EVER SPEAK WITH THESE PEOPLE. This is one of the “suggested” rules of authorship on Goodreads. DO NOT ENGAGE WITH REVIEWERS. There is a button that says comment (and the site knows you are an author commenting on a review of your book) that delivers a huge warning that tells you THIS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA.

But aren’t we supposed to engage with our readers? Are we not told to blog, write, give out freebies, do reviews, host blog chains and chat with readers on Reddit? I get comments on Wattpad all the time concerning ZAK CORBIN. I engage with these readers,if only to say Thank you or to answer a question. And readers have questions … they want to know when the next book is coming out, what will happen to this character, etc. Yes I get mean-spirited comments. I get “this is stupid” comments. I get comments from readers who just want to argue or incite me. I click on the report button and let Wattpad deal with them. Wattpad too has issues with readers and writers tangling up in their forums and comments sections. They have moderators who take stuff down and even block certain users.

This is the new engagement with readers, but it’s also the old engagement. Writers used to be  isolated and  wary of readers who contacted them (try Stephen King’s MISERY for an example of a fan who goes too far). So today’s published author must not only cultivate a social media presence (blogging, Twitter, Facebook … I have them all) but a hide of steel. Once an author puts their work out, they must leave it up to the consumer to decide what to think of it.

Should authors engage with their reviewers, or not?


A Review of ZAK CORBIN on The Blacklist

I registered and posted ZAK CORBIN AND THE MASTER OF MACHINES as a script on a site called The Blacklist. This is not to be confused with the NBC series THE BLACKLIST, starring that guy who used to be on a lawyer show with William Shatner. Anyway, the site provides access to scripts and screenplays to members. Some of those members are leading industry professionals (who shall remain anonymous).

As a registered member, I could request (and pay for) an evaluation. Now this is not the same as a reading by an industry professional looking for a script, per se. This is a person who has some experience in the business and reviews the script (on a paid basis).  Now taking into account the positive review ZAK CORBIN received on the PAGE International Screenplaying Writing Contest, let’s see what this BlackList reviewer has to say about ZAK:

Numerical ratings:

Script Rating

This script offers a cute premise and an adventure. There is plenty of fun action for children, starting with the slapstick comedy of Lugnut pushing the cart of trophies through the school. The story is creative and simple enough for young children to follow and delight in. The ability of the main characters to build a giant, perfect robot friend who fights and succeeds in a battle satisfies kid fantasies in a bright and clean way. The positive messages provided- like the ultimate value of all human life- are appropriate for children but also provide serious drama, like the robot who won’t save Dr. Corbin’s wife because that would endanger more people. Overall the script is loud, bright and action-packed, occasionally achieving a sense of danger without being too scary.


The time period is poorly conveyed. At first it is set in WW2 era, then a futuristic 1950s, and at the end it’s set in 1939 but there is no time travel or explanation for this. Clarity in slug lines would be very helpful. There are some logic issues as well. It’s not clear why Zak and his friends can’t have the harmless robots that other kids have, and it seems like Zak’s family history would conjure a more severe reaction when people learn he is making his own robots and bringing them to school. His desire to show off the ugly robots at school is confusing as well. Overall, the script is somewhat lacking in logic and clarity. It would also benefit from the addition of complex layers to entertain adult caretakers watching the movie with children, which has become a trademark of successful children’s entertainment. There are numerous typos, including one in the title.


Prospects for the story are somewhat good, but the cultural appreciation of robots may be changing considering technological advances. This script seems to have its best chance at success as a small-budget animation.

Well, there you go. The business of writing and reviewing is personal. It’s all a matter of taste. I can certainly see the reviewer’s points here. They’re not the same as the judge who read the same script  in the PAGE awards.

So what happens next? Well the script has been downloaded a few times by Industry pros, but I’ve read somewhere that no one will pay any attention to your script on this site unless it achieves 8s on the number score ratings.  So the work continues.


When Real Life Interrupts Your Writing Life

The author in his habitat
The author in his habitat

So on several fronts, it’s been a very interesting year.

I sold my house and moved to Chesapeake, Virginia because I like Virginia and I enjoy the shore (although I get incredibly seasick on a boat). I love being able to bike along the beach. It’s very relaxing. There are wonderful state parks to hike around in.

I found an apartment and made a few nice new friends who’ve introduced me to their antics and their social world. So I’m not totally alone out there. I even belong to a kickball league and I’m playing right after I write this post.

Things have changed in my life on the relationship front. Essentially I’m single and I haven’t dragged myself out to find anyone new. The dating sites I’m on are not the most interesting way to meet people. In short, it’s disappointing. There’s nothing like typing messages to invisible people and not getting back any sort of response. It’s sort of a “meh” result. Since I’m not a rock star, movie star, sports star, political star … the world really could care less.  It’s not, as I like to say, “crucial critical”.

But most importantly, I’ve been able to commit myself to writing and really focus on it. I’ve been productive. I can write 2000 or more words a day and feel really good about them because I wasn’t interrupted. Not having to drag myself into an office and face other people’s annoying problems (The website is down! The code won’t work! We need you to come into the office!) has been liberating. I’ve put a screenplay into a major competition and now its on a major website for review and reading. I finished the first draft of a new novel. I’m writing a TV pilot. And I’m waiting for the edits for my first book which will be published by Divertir.

This however, is not a perfect world. I can’t live on what savings I have for much longer. The books I have on Amazon and other sites netted me $22.00 this year. So now I’m facing the dilemma  which I call “The Party Is Over” syndrome.

I know that the edits which I will receive for my first book to be published by Divertir will be extensive. I’ve already spoken to my editor and she’s relayed some important things that must be addressed. This means that Darkest Hour will not be going into print anytime soon. It has to be done. It has to be made as good as I can make it. So I’m not blubbering over the changes, I just am blubbering over the fact that I am out of time and I have to make certain life decisions. I would love to keep writing, but now I have to find work.

I have several options. The first is freelancing from home, either as a writer or as a web developer. I could put myself out as a Kickstarter project and promise folks things like signed copies of the book or illustrations or what not. I could put myself out to a temp agency and work locally for awhile. I could sit down and find another real job (because writing, you see, isn’t). Lastly I could dig into my savings and keep funding myself.

This is that part of the writer’s life that many folks don’t realize. Many aspiring authors do not have the income to be full time writers. I’ve been like this for 25 years, and it still hasn’t changed. I’ve been able to take off a few months, but the timing between publishing and waiting for something to happen is just too narrow. It takes time to publish a book. It might do nothing. It might do something. And waiting for that is way longer than I have the money for.

So this is the part where Real Life Must Interrupt the Writing Life. Not to say that it hasn’t been enticing and fun. It has been. It’s great to be a writer. It’s what I do. I just wish I could do that for a lot longer.