Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fun Little Twitter Contest

Hey, folks!

I came across this ancient book trailer (well, okay, maybe not ANCIENT; it just feels that way) from when I first released AGENT: DEMYSTIFIED...so of course I had to turn it into a contest.

Head over to Twitter and watch the trailer. As soon as you spot my cameo appearance, tweet me using hashtag #authoresstrailer. I'll choose one name from among the tweets to win a 5-page critique.

Here's the tweet:


And by the way -- AGENT: DEMYSTIFIED is available for FREE on my web site!  Go HERE and scroll down.

I'll choose and announce the winner on Friday!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Secret Agent Contest on the Horizon!

Ringing an early bell to let you know that submissions for our next Secret Agent Contest will happen on April 1! (No, this isn't a joke!)

Mark your calendars if you write the following:


  • Middle Grade -- especially adventure stories and historical fiction
  • YA contemporary romance
  • YA magical realism
  • Women's Fiction
  • Thriller/Suspense
  • Literary Fiction
  • General Fiction


Submission guidelines will post on the blog on Monday, March 25.

Ask your questions below, or poke me on Twitter!

Monday, February 25, 2019

REPOST: Battle of the Critiques

This a post from almost 4 years ago that I came across accidentally while searching for something else on the blog (go ahead--ask me how many bunny trails I go on every time I do a search!). With an influx of new readers here, I felt this might be timely for some of you.

Critique is such an important part of our journeys as writers--we simply cannot grow without it. Our stories will never be the best they can be without the eyes and words of others. But what happens when we receive conflicting opinions? How do we sort out the good from the bad? What does it even mean when we receive feedback on opposite ends of the spectrum?

I hope this article will offer you some clarity--and encouragement!


Battle of the Critiques

Anyone who has sent out a manuscript to a group of readers (which may or may not include your agent) knows what it feels like when those critiques start to roll in.  Each one that lands in your mailbox makes your stomach do this weird, twisty thing that's a combination of excitement and dread.  You're dying for the feedback, but you're not too excited to have your work's flaws highlighted in lime green for all the world to see.

Okay, it's not all the world.  But it can sort of feel that big.

The collective wisdom of the critiques--assuming you're sending them to the people who should be reading you--can either gently or not-so-gently open your eyes to inherent flaws in your story.  A gaping plot hole that you might have missed will be easily spotted by those who've never read the story before.  A protagonist who does a big Thing without having a believable motivation is going to be crucified by those who just aren't buying it.  Good readers will ask questions like, "Why is she doing this right now?" and "Could this have believably happened in the time frame you've outlined here?" and "What the heck did he do that for?"

And, too, there's the ever-useful "Huh?"  I've used it myself.  Sometimes it's just that the reader missed something she shouldn't have.  But more often than not, it means "this thing you just wrote makes absolutely no sense and I'm not even sure how to address it".

I see you nodding.

As your writing matures, the nature of the critiques shifts.  It's likely you've learned, at some point, how to avoid plot holes, and how to write dialogue that doesn't sound like Lord of the Rings fan fiction.  Your critique partners will pull out things that are more subtle, like a protagonist whose arc isn't strong enough, a supporting character who doesn't add anything to the story, or information that is being shared too early or too late.

The key to knowing which advice to hold onto is twofold: 1) You need to be hearing it from more than one person, and 2) It needs to resonate with you and with your vision for your story.

So, if one person says "Ed the Janitor has no real purpose in the story, and I think you should delete him", and five people say, "Ed the Janitor is my favorite supporting character", then probably Ed's role in the story is safe.  But if more than one critique partner is pointing out the inherent weaknesses in Ed's character, then you need to listen.

It takes an open heart--a combination of vulnerability and teachability--to be able to receive what people are saying so that you can then move toward allowing it to resonate with your story.  That's when you start asking questions like, "Okay, what does Ed really accomplish?  Do I need him?  Is that scene in chapter 12--the one I love so much that it's going to be engraved upon my tombstone--really adding to the plot?"

Those questions can be painful!  But so it goes.  As a general rule, if more than one set of eyeballs sees the same problem, YOU'D BETTER PAY ATTENTION.

You probably know all this already.  I certainly know it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, earlier this week, I received two critiques on the same day that were polar opposites.

I'm talking, there is no way that these two people read the same story.  

Reader #1:  "...spellbound and incredibly invested in the characters"
Reader #2:  "I had no sense of any of the characters...there was nothing to like about them."

Reader #1: "I had a hard time putting the book down and I feel like you hit all the really big moments beautifully."
Reader #2:  "...there was nothing to hook me..."

Now, before you make the assumption that Reader #1 was my mom--she wasn't.  Both of these readers are highly qualified to critique a manuscript.  Both are talented and experienced.  Both are honest and forthright.  

Reader #1 went on to point out (beautifully) all the areas she felt needed work (I agreed with every single one).  So it wasn't all cotton candy and fairy wings, for sure.  And Reader #2 made it clear that she was this level of honest because of our relationship and her belief in my abilities.

Meanwhile, my head kept spinning.  Counterclockwise, rapidly.

So I sent a mildly frantic message to Reader #3, asking if she had time to read my first chapter and tell me everything she hated about it.  (Yes, those were my exact words. I wanted all the ugly up front.)  This reader is also highly qualified and experienced.  And knows how to be brutally honest.

Reader #2: "The biggest problem I found was no real worldbuilding."
Reader #3:  "Your world is solid...but almost too detailed."




So I did what I always do when I don't know what's going on -- I asked Jodi Meadows, who is bossy and likes to always be right.

Her response?  "It's probably a good sign, actually."

I had no idea what she meant.

So she clarified, and it made sense:  People are having different reactions.  They're not all pointing to one inherent flaw, like a broken plot or a superfluous character.  They are reading the same words and seeing different things.  Some of them pointed out similar flaws (like too much telling when I should be showing, or a lack of clear motivation for my main character), but there was no single, enormous flaw that ALL or MOST readers have pointed out.  (Others have read, too, besides these three.)

Know what's most encouraging of all?  I am incredibly motivated to revise this based on ALL the feedback, including the heart-knotting response from Reader #2.  Which speaks well for my ability to get slammed with conflicting (to a high degree!) critique and to move on quickly.  Already, I've done work on the first chapter with which I'm really happy.  As in, I am eager to pull it out this morning to continue fine-tuning.

Honestly, I'm sitting here thinking, Who am I?  I'm so thankful to be not only emotionally stable this morning, but incredibly excited to write today!

Because, oh, this story.  It's on the cusp of becoming what I dreamed it would.  And I'm digging in and not letting up until I'm finished.

Reader #1: Thank you for your incredible support and brilliant insight.  You rooted for me all the way through the first draft, and you're still working your magic.  It is my intention not to let you down.

Reader #2:  Thank you for your courage, and for honoring me with raw words that you self-admittedly would not have sent to someone with whom you didn't have a relationship.  Thank you for loving me instead of fearing to offend me.  Because of you, I have discovered within myself depths that I didn't know existed.  And that's no small thing.

Reader #3:  Thank you for rescuing me!  And for your incredibly thoughtful and encouraging critique.  I covet your eyes on my work, because they've always produced good things.  You are kind, you are gifted, and you are appreciated.

Jodi:  You are bossy and you are beautiful.  And you, my very first critique partner, have walked me all the way through this journey--with grace, selflessness, wisdom, and humor.  You taught me that I could grow wings and fly.  And you're still teaching me.

To everyone:  We are all part of the same circle.  May you learn from me today as I continue to learn from those around me--and may you go on to share what you've learned with others.

And keep writing, no matter what falls down around you!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

First Kiss Critique Guidelines

Happy Valentine's Day! Ready for some smooches?

The number of entries was way down, but that just gives each entrant an opportunity for more feedback yes? Please read these scenes for the following:

*BELIEVABILITY
*CHEMISTRY (between the two characters)
*PACING

No two kisses are equal, and everyone has different taste; however, a well-written kiss scene transcends all that--so let's help our fellow scribes get that smooch just right!

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 3 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

First Kiss #9

TITLE: Something Only We Know
GENRE: YA Lgbt drama

This scene’s set in a hospital lounge where Jayden and Jude are taking a break from the impending losses awaiting them  

“One of my mom's books, it has a whole lot about making sure your loved ones know that you will be okay and that you can let them go,” Jayden said, tearing up, “so when I'm alone with my dad, I tell him, it's okay, and I'll be okay, that he can go.”

“Wow, I don't know if I could do that,” I told her.

“You could if your brother was really suffering, my dad is suffering when he is awake,” Jayden said.

“I hope I can be stronger, like you,” I said.

“It's not strong, it's that I don't have a choice. I can't beg him to stay with me. How could I?” she said.

We sat a bit more and she suddenly shoved me.

“What?” I asked.

“I'm just glad you are here,” she said.

“So you hit me?” I said, pretending to be really hurt.

“I didn't hit you, ya baby!” Jayden said.

“You shoved me!” I insisted.

“A little bit, gosh!” she said, smiling.

I looked her in the eyes and smiled too, “I'm glad you are here too. I mean I'm--. also sorry, for why you are here--”

“Yeah, I know, shut up, or I'll put that on the list too,” Jay said.

It felt so strange that I was having the best conversation and I felt like I had met a new best friend. Here of all places. Something just clicked with her and I knew we were supposed to meet, not to sound all spiritual or weird, but I felt like there was something with us that was really cool.

And then Jay kissed me.

First Kiss #8

TITLE: Diplomatic Immunity
GENRE: Adult Thriller

In her safehouse in Vermont, Diana worries about her life while the sniper is still after her and at large. As she's recovering from the wounds from the shooting, her feelings for Wesley, her bodyguard, are deeper.

“What’s on your mind? You’re so quiet lately and a bit solemn. I’ll keep your safe here. What you need is a good distraction and try to relax like this…” He sat closer to her and leaned in for a big kiss on her lips.

A jolt of heated electricity sent shockwaves coursing through her body. It flushed her cheeks and curled her toes. Talk about explosive fireworks! Her heart raced while she had fluttering butterflies in her growling stomach. She didn’t know she would feel this way about him and vice versa after knowing each other for a day. What was he like in the bedroom? She told herself not to go there.

“Wow!”

“I’ve been wanting to do that yesterday for the longest time.”

She cocked her brows and controlled her heartbeat into a steady rhythmic pace. “Even if I was in pain?”

He smiled. “Yep. But I wanted to wait until you were feeling better. Don’t worry. I won’t rush things and take things slow with you.”

“Thank you.” For a couple of minutes, she marveled if he fell in love with her photo at first sight in her dossier for his assignment. “What did Adrian tell you about my case this weekend?”

Wesley opened and then closed his mouth shut. “Adrian made the call Friday night and had arranged for me to come to your hospital room right away. He told me you were in grave danger and needed immediate protection from a sniper.

First Kiss #7

TITLE: All that's Holy
GENRE: YA romance/fantasy

Holy Maiden Ysabel is injured during an attempted kidnapping by foreign country coveting her healing powers. When she thought she was about to die, she regretted never kissing Kaine, her bodyguard. Kaine is currently looking after her while she recuperates.

Nestling my feet in Kaine’s lap as I lay back on a pile of pillows, I said, “I’m bored.”

He massaged my feet. “Then let me know how I can serve you, my lady.”

I was just going to ask him to bring me a book, but the way he said that sent heat pooling in my belly. “How about you massage my back, then?” I rolled over.

“I’d love to.” He straddled me and kneaded my shoulders. Mmm, he had heavenly hands. I could feel my tension drifting away. Every so often his chest touched me, feather-light. I started to inch forward to let him access my thighs. “No, don’t move, let me,” he whispered, gently repositioning my legs. He stroked softly at first, then applied more pressure, focusing on each individual muscle.

I cracked an eye open. “You know, I promised you a kiss.”

“You did?”

“Inside my head.” Leisurely, I sat up and stretched.

His breath hitched. I planted my hands on either side of his head, trapping him against the wall. I wasn’t sure which of us moved first. Our lips locked. He tasted like sugar, the glutton, and he ate me alive like one of his pastries, probing with an inexperienced roughness and a gratifying eagerness. My hands wound in his hair as he also grabbed the back of my head. He sucked too hard in his eagerness, so I nipped him, then took over the reins, guiding his tongue in a tantalizing dance.

First Kiss #6

TITLE: Heart of Fire
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba has fallen in love with a demon named Kryptos, but she’s forced to banish him in order to protect her world from a demonic invasion. He detects what she’s doing and appears partway through the ritual.

Kryptos materialized behind her, a frown on his face. “Ebba, there’s something wrong with the Veil.” Alarm colored his voice.

Sweet Anabiel have mercy. She hadn’t counted on him being able to detect what she was doing now he controlled the entrance between Hell and this world. If only she’d had time to read more of The Testament of Saint Jhaarth. The same book slipped from her frightened fingers.

Probably, she was going to die. At least it was too late for him to stop the ritual even if he took his fire back from her. She ought to say the last words and let it be finished.

Instead, Ebba grabbed the front of Kryptos’ shirt and kissed him.

Her decision was spontaneous and entirely self-centered. She did it because she wanted to. A kiss had been promised to her, and she would have it, even if it tasted bitter instead of sweet.

To her surprise, he kissed her back. He must have known something was wrong. Yet he didn’t break away. He devoted his full attention to the kiss. His hands went to her hips, his wings hugging her. There was a clumsiness in the thrust of his tongue, which he didn’t quite know where to put, but Kryptos kissed with singular focus, as if the only thing in the entire universe was her.

Their embrace only broke when Kryptos’ body started to fade away.

First Kiss #5

TITLE: The King's 100
GENRE: YA Sci-Fi/Romance

When Piper’s partner for the traditional court NYE kiss leaves the stage sick, the maestro replaces him with the one boy she has tried to avoid kissing since she set foot in the enemy kingdom.

Maestro shouted through a smile. “Kiss her, dammit! Kiss her!”

Ari looked down at Maestro, then back at me, wrestling with his next move. He dropped my hands and placed his palms on my waist. He closed the distance between us and I felt the heat of his body through his tuxedo. His fingertips tensed against my dress as his eyes darted back and forth, searching for answers on my frozen face.

No, I pleaded without speaking. Please don’t make me kiss you when all I want to do is leave this kingdom and forget you.

But then he sealed his decision by pressing his lips to mine.

I closed my eyes, shutting out the light of the room and drinking in the taste of Ari’s lips. Feeling lighter than air, I curled my fingers around the smooth satin of his lapel, anchoring myself to his body.
Ari pulled away and looked at me with a soft gaze and his mouth parted slightly open. The magicians released silver foil confetti, cloaking us in our own private sanctuary. The sounds of the outside world were dampened by the rhythm of our breathing as we stared into eachother’s eyes. I finally let go of the thick rope of the curtain within me, letting it fly open to expose my naked, vulnerable self to the boy on the other side.

Then Maestro shouted something, causing Ari to step back and dissolve our sanctuary.

First Kiss #4

TITLE: Skyline
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Sammie's struggling to balance her brother's growing issues with her own life. Finally she allows herself to hang out with a girl named Jade. Soon Sammie realizes she likes Jade as more than a friend, but is the feeling mutual?

Then I feel a hand lifting my chin back up. Jade's way closer now, and I can see every eyelash surrounding those amazing green eyes. Her hair curls around her face, the black melting into the green like grass through fresh dirt.

Jade takes my hand. "Nice nail polish."

And then I really do know.

Jade leans closer, and I close my eyes.

My first thought is, I'm kissing a girl.

My second thought is, holy crap! I need to start kissing more girls!

My third thought is I should just keep kissing Jade, because there's no way anyone else could be better.

Our hands are still entwined. I tangle my other hand in her hair. She reaches around my waist, holding me tight, not like I'm planning on going anywhere.

For a glorious minute--hour? Day?--I forget about Riley, and Josh, and everything else. All I know is Jade's lips on mine, and how soft her hair is, and how warm she is pressed up against me. I can't see her, but I can feel every inch of her, and I want to stand like this forever and never have to worry.
But eventually, she breaks free, and I want to ask how she got so good at kissing. I want to ask if this means we're a couple now. I want to ask if we can do it again.

First Kiss #3

TITLE: Tiny
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Tala and Terran are humanoid aliens living on earth. They’ve been kidnapped and are being kept in a cave with a force field barrier guarding the entrance. Tala has assembled a device that will allow one person to pass through.

“Tala, wait.”

His voice was tense. She turned back, wondering if something was wrong. He swept toward her, placed his hands on her waist and, after staring for a fiery moment into her eyes, pressed his lips to hers.

Her mind whirled in surprise. Great fires of all the Volcanos. He was kissing her. And, she realized with a start that almost made her pull away, she was kissing him back. For once she didn’t think, didn’t calculate, she just let herself live in this one perfect moment.

And then, far too quickly, it was over. He pulled away and gave her a gentle push through the barrier.
She stood on the other side, breathless, a little confused, and still not sure what to do with her hands. He gazed back at her with the most serious expression she’d seen on him yet, pressed his hand against the barrier and whispered, “Good luck, Tala.”

She bit her bottom lip.

“Terran, you realize I’m not leaving without you, right?”

“You don’t have time to worry about getting the barrier down. Go. Get to the ship. Save the humans. You can come back for me when there aren’t other lives depending on you.”

“No, Terran. When I said the device would only let one person through, I meant only one…at a time.”
She held out the device, pushing it through the barrier toward him.

“Oh, right,” he said, taking it with an embarrassed grin that made her heart beat faster.

First Kiss #2

TITLE: Stoking Hope
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction

Frances and Joe are college students, dating for two months. They take a walk after their chemistry class on a cold March day in 1941.

Frances scanned the treetops, searching for signs of spring but the trees were bare, the glass spires of the conservatory clearly visible.

Joe stomped his feet. “Let’s go inside.” He emptied his pocket, handing the coins to the gatekeeper.
She opened her mouth to protest. Joe being indulgent with his scant funds filled her with guilt, but the warm and perfumed air was so enticing. She closed her mouth. They wandered through damp rooms overflowing with exotic plants and flowers, pausing to read the small identification tags and trying to pronounce the long names aloud.

“Glad I’m trying to be a chemist, not a botanist,” Joe said, squinting at the words printed beneath a tall plant with leaves as large as elephant ears, hairy vines snaking up the trunk. He pushed open the door to the Orchid Room.

“Mmm,” Frances mumbled, overwhelmed by the intoxicating scent. Dozens of blooms in dozens of colors, quivering atop rubbery stems. She bent, her nose inches from blood-red petals. Two women approached, the only other people in the room, and Frances murmured a greeting, straightening to let them pass. She worked her way into the tight space, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Feeling Joe at her side, she opened her eyes. The women had disappeared; they were alone. She raised her chin and Joe leaned down, his eyes a brilliant green, mimicking the lush plants. Her first kiss. Everything was as she dreamed—heart pounding, lips tingling—except it wasn’t Mickey.

First Kiss #1

TITLE: Windcaller
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Tlanis, one of the oppressed dwellers of a rain-less land, has learned that naShola was only pretending to be a heartless noble. In secret she was the veiled windcaller who used her powers to bring rain to his people.

His gaze softened. “Do not blame yourself, Arris.”

A tremor ran through her at the sound of her secret name. She took a hesitant step toward him. “You’re too kind. Life in the Aridlands should have made you hard as stone, but here you are.” She blinked away her tears. “I love you, Tlanis.”

Once more his brow crinkled up. He had not expected this. naShola could not bear to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry. I wanted you to know. I won’t say it again.”

She started to go, but he caught her hand, pulled her closer. “Say it again,” he said quietly.

naShola gave him a wondering look, her heartbeat quickening. “I love you.”

“I love you, Arris.”

While she stood there, too stunned to believe it, Tlanis smiled and brought her face to his. Their lips met.

A thousand sensations enveloped her. She was so happy she thought she might drown in them. His soft mouth, his warm calloused palms on her cheeks, the ragged cloth of his sleeves as she clutched his arms, the scent of rain all around them…

It was raining. They broke apart and looked up together at the gentle mist coming down from the sky. Far in the west, the setting sun was a spot of pink through the pale gray clouds. Tlanis laughed and gripped her hand tight. naShola whispered to the wind, urging the clouds to spread and carry the hope of green beyond the Plateau.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Call For Submissions: FIRST KISS Critique Round



You know I had to do it--because VALENTINE'S DAY!

Does your novel have a first kiss scene? Would you like some feedback on it? This is the critique session for you!

The details:

*The submission window for this critique round is NOON to SIX EST on TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12.
*This contest is a lottery; at the close of submissions, the bot will choose 20 entries to post on the blog.
*Your first kiss scene may be from a novel in any genre EXCEPT erotica or erotic romance.
*Please note: the rating for this blog is PG-13. If your scene doesn't fit this parameter, it will be disqualified. (Final word is mine.)
*The First Kiss scenes will post for critique on--when else?--THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14.
*Enter HERE.
*IMPORTANT: Please format your entry as follows:

A brief lead-in to help set the scene and give it context. (40 words max)

Followed by your maximum-250-word first kiss scene.

If you fail to include a lead-in and your entry is chosen, you'll still get to be part of the line-up; but please know that it is more difficult for people to effectively critique a scene out of context. PLEASE INCLUDE THE LEAD-IN!

Questions? Ask below!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Street Team for STORMRISE



We're a little more than 7 months away from STORMRISE's release (how can it be??). I've established a street team to help spread the word, and I'd like to extend the invitation to you.

If you're interested in being a part of my (secret, super-powered) Street Team, PLEASE CLICK HERE. It's a brief form that will let me know how you'd like to be involved. That's it!  I'll be in touch with everyone who signs up.

Thanks, everyone!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Friday Fricassee

Can it actually be that I'm writing 2 Friday Fricassees in a row?

In its heyday, this blog boasted 10 Secret Agent contests a year, the grand Baker's Dozen Agent Auction in December (5 stellar years, lots of success stories), and ongoing in-house critique sessions. It was hard to keep up that pace, though, and I gradually cut things back. Then, when I sold my book and was suddenly faced with my first deadline, I realized I had to cut back even more.

I'm not promising a return to the monthly Secret Agent contests or any end-of-year hullabaloo, but I do want to be mindful of offering more in-house critique, because IT IS SO HELPFUL. So if you're not subscribed to this blog (see right side bar) or following me on Twitter, do it now! Then you'll always know what's coming up next.

Which leads me to this fun announcement: Our next Secret Agent contest is officially scheduled for April! Keep your eyes on the blog for early info, to determine whether your genre is a fit for this agent.

Honestly, this past contest was so filled with positive energy, and the agent was such a delight to work with, that I found myself thinking, "So, why haven't I been doing as many of these lately?". Which, of course, works in your favor. :)

As my release date looms closer (September 10!), I'm sure I'll go a bit dark again. But for now, while I've hit my stride with "Untitled" (I mean, it actually does have a title, but that's just for my eyeballs right now), I feel like I can give a bit more here.

Yay!

And now I need to make myself a cuppa coffee (pour-over--my new love!) and sit down with my erasable marker (who knew that was a thing??) and the first-pass pages of STORMRISE. I've got 2 weeks to go through this thing word by comma by emdash. And that'll be the last time I see it until it's an advanced review copy!

(My stomach just dropped. Again. Wouldn't it be great if we burned calories every time that happened? I'd be at least 5 pounds lighter by now.)

Have a joyful weekend!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Whole New Level of Pushing Through



Many of you have been following my blog for a long time--since before I was agented, since before I'd gone on submission with not one or two or three or four, but FIVE novels that didn't sell. I wrote a lot of posts about persevering, pushing through, never giving up.

Signing my contract with Tor Teen was definitely an arrival--a moment long awaited for, long dreamed of, long worked toward. But it was by no means the end. The hard truth is that perseverance and determination and chutzpah are just as necessary after you've landed your first book deal. Because--and here's the kicker: writing doesn't get any easier.

I mean, you all know that writing is hard, right? This writerly journey isn't for wimps! And getting your first book out there doesn't mean you're suddenly a pro who doesn't have to do more than blink one languid eye to produce the next novel.

As most of you know, I signed a two-book deal, and the second book was listed as "Untitled YA". True confession: I was immediately intimidated. Why? Because SOMEONE WANTED TO BUY A BOOK I HADN'T EVEN DRAFTED YET. That may sound like a dream to some of you, but for me it was a few breaths shy of a nightmare. One of my pre-published fears was that I would find myself writing a book that people were waiting for--and I wouldn't be able to do it.

That's a bit of a scary monster to overcome, yes?

Sure enough, my novel-in-progress has been a slogfest. I've groaned and wept and gnashed and cursed and stared and snarled my way through this process, day after day. I started the second draft before finishing the first because it was such a mess I couldn't write the denouement. Then I started the third draft when I was halfway through the second because I'd gone way off track again.

I think I'm finally on track--and EXCITED!!--about my new story, which will be out September, 2020. Which, considering how quickly the past year has zipped by, isn't that far away.

All that to say--hard work is hard work. Regardless of whether you're doing it before or after you're agented, or before or after you're published, it is what it is. Writing stories is glorious and fulfilling. It's also exhausting, overwhelming, and brain-sucking. 

Sometimes it makes me cry.

Sometimes it makes me feel like I should never have decided to be a writer.

But at the end of the day? It makes me feel empowered. Creative. Purposeful. And proud of myself for pushing through the hard bits.

So my mantra on this side of the journey remains the same: Never Give Up. I'm still living that, and I expect I always will. Nothing worth doing is easy; nothing worth sharing is effortless. Sharing our words with the world is a high calling, and we've got to be prepared to dig in until we're barely standing.

And then we can eat some chocolate or queso or or or MOON CHEESE (my new favorite snack) and keep going.

Believe in yourself! Believe that, when you are flat on your back and ready to quit, tomorrow you'll have what it takes to write another page, another scene, another chapter.

Hooray that we're all in this together! Hooray that we can rely on each other when we're feeling like we can't do this anymore!

Deep breath. Eyes wide open. Jump back in.

Onward!

Monday, January 28, 2019

And we've got some winners!

First of all, HUGE APPLAUSE for every person who entered this contest. It takes courage to throw your work in front of a group of peers. Bravo!

And now, without further ado, here are Amy's winners:

RUNNERS UP:

#6 - THE STONE WITCH'S GRANDDAUGHTER
#8 - AT 7TH AND BROADWAY
#9 - FLIGHT CLUB
#20 - THE QUESTING WITCH
#38 - BLOOD NUMBERS

THE PRIZE: Ms. Stapp would like to see your query and the first five chapters of your manuscript.

TOP PICKS:

#26 - THE PHAROAH'S DAUGHTER
#31- CONVENTIONAL MAGIC
#44 - AGAINST ALL ODDS

THE PRIZE: Ms. Stapp would like to see your full manuscript.

IMPORTANT: Please email me at facelesswords@gmail.com for specific submission instructions.

Congratulations, all!

Secret Agent Unveiled: AMY STAPP


Huge thanks and all the virtual chocolate go to our incredible Secret Agent for this month, Amy Stapp of Wolfson Literary

Amy's Bio:

Amy Stapp received her BA from Samford University and MA from Georgia State University before beginning her publishing career at Macmillan, where she was an editor for seven years and had the privilege of working with bestselling authors such as Katie McGarry, Shelley Noble, and Amber Lynn Natusch, among others. Amy joined Wolfson Literary in 2018 and is actively building her list, with interest in women's fiction, mystery, suspense, historical fiction, young adult, and select nonfiction. She is particularly drawn to well-paced prose and smart, multidimensional characters.

What I'm looking for: 

On the adult side I'm seeking suspense, women's fiction, light magical realism, and historical fiction. In YA I love romance, mystery, historical, and coming-of-age. I'm particularly eager to find smart, "unputdownable" YA thrillers and complex, multigenerational women's fiction.

Thank you for your time and talent, Amy!

Winners forthcoming.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Fricassee





I have to admit it--I've missed the bustle of the Secret Agent Contests! It's been great this week meeting new folks (mostly on Twitter--yay, Twitter!) and feeling the energy and excitement buzzing about from those who were entering for the first time.

Also? That same, wonderful spirit I'm always gushing about remained steadfast on Monday when submissions came to a grinding halt with a CONTEST IS FULL message only 8 minutes after the window opened.

Oops.

But nobody yelled! Nobody snarked! Nobody bombarded me with passive aggressive, victim-mentality emails. People asked questions, I got in touch with my programmer, he fixed the problem, and on we went.

THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!

I can't say it enough: The online writing community is incomparable. I'm honored to be part of it.

It's thrilling, too, to meet a whole new generation of aspiring authors. This blog has been around for ages (it'll be 11 years in April!), and many of our "oldies" (a term of endearment, I assure you), have gone on to get agents and book deals, or else they've moved on to shinier pastures (if pastures can be shiny). Mind you, there are lots of you long-timers who are still here, still in process, still reaching for the stars. AND I AM SO GLAD! But I'm also glad to be meeting new writers.

For all who are new--here are some ways to learn more about me and about this blog.

To read about Secret Agent Contests and our in-house critique sessions:


To read the 3-part story of the Real Me behind my anonymous Authoress persona:

GO HERE (part 1)

AND HERE (part 2)

AND HERE (part 3)

To learn more about Jillian Boehme, author:


To preorder STORMRISE:





To receive the FREE e-book AGENT: DEMYSTIFIED (for querying writers):


And to subscribe to my AUTHOR NEWSLETTER (and receive a FREE audiobook):


I think that about covers it! Welcome, welcome, welcome, and best of luck on your writing endeavors.

Next up: Monday we'll reveal our Secret Agent and also announce the winners of this contest! Make sure you've subscribed to the blog (see right sidebar), and then you'll never miss a thing.

See you then! Happy weekend, all!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Secret Agent Contest: Critique Guidelines

Okay, everyone--grab your red pencils and a big mug of tea! Here are 50 offering that need your eyeballs.

Remember to keep an eye out for our Secret Agent, who will be leaving feedback for ALL 50 ENTRIES some time between today and Sunday! Do your thoughts line up with our Secret Agent's? Leave yours and then come back and check!

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

January Secret Agent #50

TITLE: Child of Night
GENRE: YA Fantasy

“Give me back my phone, you sea urchin,” I growled at Roland as he snapped ridiculous selfies.
Roland moved the phone high up in the middle of the isle, way out of my reach. “Well, Avery, if you can’t tolerate oceanic creatures maybe you should change seats.”

I silently cursed my foster mom for stopping for coffee on the way to the school. Five minutes earlier and I would have had the back seat of the bus all to myself. However, because of her caffeine addiction, I now found myself wedged between the bus window and the most annoying boy in my class for the next half-hour until we arrived at our field trip’s destination in Salem, Massachusetts. I continued to remind myself it would be less than a year before I could turn my tiny savings into a car and drive myself but each agonizing moment made that day seem farther and farther away.

From the second we stepped on to the bus, Roland made it clear that he was not going to change seats. But neither was I. Each of us wanted the back seat and we were both willing to fight for it. His idea of fighting was apparently to be the most annoying person on the planet until I got fed up. I was not going to sit at the front just because this jerk decided to claim my spot, no matter the idiotic behavior I had to put up with.

January Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Here Comes the Sun
GENRE: YA Historical

Spring 2000

I arrive at Heathrow Airport with bags in my arms and under my eyes. The six-thousand-hour flight from Chicago was meant to be a time to “recharge our batteries” and prepare for a full day of travel, according to lead chaperone Mr. Parsons. What actually occurred was quite the opposite, largely due to my poor seat location between my best friend and chaperone. And, possibly, an ill-timed sleeping pill.

My senior class from Naperville Academy has been preparing for the spring break trip to England since the very first day of school. The weekly meetings at the butt-crack of dawn every Monday were used to prepare us on English culture, transportation and history. The main lesson I learned after all those Mondays is that we are never ever to be late to check in and that The Tube is the British version of a subway and is apparently not whatever I initially imagined – a blue teleportation device.

What I didn’t learn from Mr. Parsons and Mr. Marks every Monday I eventually learned from my mom, who has never stepped foot on British soil. Don’t eat the meat. Wear bright colors. And don’t piss off the Beefeaters. Now, if The Tube had my imagination churning, just imagine where I went with Beefeaters. It was a sad day when I learned they were simply part of the Queen’s Guard, which is a far cry from giants throwing cows into their mouthes one after another.

“Nat, come on. Ya gotta move," my best friend Krista says.

January Secret Agent #48

TITLE: The Witch and the Demon
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba’s soaked dress clung to her skin as she ran through the moonless night. The lake water left from her near-drowning had crystalized into icicles. If she fell, she might not get up again. Keep moving. Get far away from the witchfinder, may he be reincarnated as a drunkard’s chamber pot.

Heedless of direction, she climbed up the mountain, away from her village. A wolf’s cry pierced the air. Ebba froze.

The forest was dead silent again, eerily devoid of owls or bats. An ancient demonic invasion had left this place magic-cursed. Ebba shivered. Most wolves avoid humans. Except for the red-eyed ones living deeper in the forest. Anabiel help me.

She refused to be devoured like her mother. Perhaps she could sneak back to steal a knife and some food. She’d been too panicked in her flight, afraid the witchfinder might wake up…

First, he’d poked pins into the mottled red birthmark covering her left cheek. Giant hands had held her down, his nails filthy and his liver spots as big as spiders. His too-close breath had reeked of onions.

“Confess,” the witchfinder had ordered after every pin. Each time, she’d refused. They’d kill her once she confessed.

The second day had been the hot iron. This morning, the dunking. Through a blur of watery suffocation, her most distinct memory was, peculiarly, the smell of the sausages. Mad Gill had sold them to bystanders. Her pleas with her neighbors had been met with disdain.

No, she wasn’t going back.

January Secret Agent #47

TITLE: The Veil: Whispers from Darkness
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction

Michael Reid had more than just the underbrush to worry about.

   His breath hung in front of him in perfect white clouds, huffed out from aching lungs that begged for a break. Running had never been the sort of exercise that he sought on a daily basis instead relying on other extracurricular activities that involved a partner of the female persuasion.  The situation that he had found himself in for the last month was, to say the least, not where he had been expecting his life to go. He held a rather high social status for a human, which was rare among his kind. Those not born in the Veil were often considered the dirt under a ladder. The worst that he have ever been accused of was flirting with a married woman. Not something like this. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to remember his warm, comfortable flat where he had all the finer things life had to offer waiting on him such as his designer suits and 1700s dated bottles of Chateau Margaux.

    A thorny branch smacked itself across his right cheek, bringing him back to the reality of the ragged man he had become since going on the run two weeks prior. The cuts stung as the tiny needle-like thorns cut shallowly into his skin. Inwardly he chided himself on allowing his body to become so ragged. However, logical thinking often took the backseat to panic.

January Secret Agent #46

TITLE: When I Know Your Name
GENRE: Adult Romantic Suspense

Run. Get away. Now!

Listening to that inner voice, the primal thing that is instinct, Elena turned and ran. Flooded with adrenaline and vision cleared, her mind sharpened only the essential senses. Head down andfists pumping, she gained crucial momentum.

Her early morning alarm seemed a thousand years away, as was her decision to go for a run to cleanse her body of the wine she had polished off with Charlotte.

That was her first mistake.

Her second mistake was leaving her flat without her phone, assuming it was tucked in her pocket.
As she stared into the face of the stranger, she remembered him. She’d noticed him standing across the street from her apartment building on a couple of occasions. She’d discussed it, but nobody believed it was anything to do with her. But she did. Deep down, she believed it was everything to do with her, but she’d brushed it aside not wanting to make the same mistake as before. Stupid, given her family’s circumstances.

She hadn’t seen him approach as she stretched, ready to start into an easy jog, hadn’t noticed him blocking her path as she looked up to see him walk towards her. She wasn’t sure if it was the slight sneer in his smile or the car that slowed in the road behind him, but something wasn’t right.

Something was very wrong.

She bolted up the steps to her apartment building and he matched her speed with startling efficiency.
‘Not so fast.’

January Secret Agent #45

TITLE: By Virtue Fall
GENRE: YA Apocalyptic Fantasy

Mama always said freedom could be found inside Haven’s walls. When we’d sit together on the porch at night, mending Papa’s casting nets to the glow of fireflies and chirrup of katydids, she’d weave stories she’d picked up in the market: that a temple in Haven’s central city had a steeple so tall it scraped the clouds; that lordlings there lived in palaces and held parties in rooms dipped in gold; that shiny black locomotives raced across metal tracks, moving faster than any horse could run.

But I never believed her.

What kind of freedom could be confined by walls?

I was naive to ever mistake shelter for confinement.

Tribulation rises over the southern landscape like a metal tidal wave, seconds from crashing onto the ghost town below. My squad shouldn’t be this close to the wall. If Haven’s knights catch us they won’t hesitate to shoot. But we haven’t found a usable voltic cell in months, so the abandoned research facility inside their “dreg free” zone may be our last chance to get one before my brother’s heart stops ticking.

I grip my battle axe and lead my squad through the dusty streets. All around, the city’s roofs are caved in, with glass shards clinging to their windows like cracked teeth. My metal arm rattles from the tension coiled in my shoulders as I step into Tribulation’s shadow. No going back to camp empty handed today. Ari won’t have to pull another brave face to shield me from his disappointment.

January Secret Agent #44

TITLE: AGAINST ALL ODDS
GENRE: YA Contemporary

If you want something, take it.

This was what Amy chanted to herself as she stepped behind the block in lane six. The 100 free was the last event at Swim Philadelphia’s August Invitational. If she didn’t qualify for Junior Nationals during this race, come September she’d be forced to enroll in her local high school. If she did qualify, she’d spend freshman year on scholarship at Heartdale Prep, the school for elite-level swimmers that her three older siblings attended.

Not getting into Heardale wasn’t an option. Amy’s favorite Heartdale shirt, the one she slept in every night, was signed “you can do it!” by a freshman she met at one of Cat’s swim meets when she was eleven. Every night before bed, she watched YouTube videos that showed off the school’s campus. Every morning before getting up, she whispered Heartdale’s motto, “Anyone can be an Olympian,” into her pillow.

Cheers bounced across the pool deck. Banners waved and cameras popped, but Amy’s gaze stayed locked on the athletes in the water. The girl in lane five flipped, leading her heat into the fourth and final lap of the race. Her streamline was rigid, her dolphin kicks tight and powerful. Amy didn’t know her name, but she knew the desperation on her face. It wasn’t the shallow desire that played, sharp and hopeful, across your skin for a few months. This was a want that burrowed deep into your brain when you were young, shaping your face and the bones behind it.

January Secret Agent #43

TITLE: CROWNED AND CRATERED
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Kali knew that one day the furry curiosity would be the death of her. Still, the world’s last living cat was the closest thing she had to a friend. And you didn’t leave your friends with wolves.

Closing the steel-plated door of her closet-sized room, Kali turned on the tips of her toes. The reinforced flooring didn’t squeak, yet within a single step, her heart slammed against her chest. She bit down to stifle the scream in her throat. Then she braced, recognizing the intruder half-hidden in the dim hall.

The night nurse, Shawna, leaned in a doorframe three away with her arms crossed. The wicked grin she wore whenever the children weren’t around turned her lips more down than up, and the tight leather crew-neck jacket told from where she came.

The leather wasn’t synthetic, spun from the fabricated composites that the echelon wore. Instead it was real, from a tanned cow’s hide. With cows being more myth than reality, only the tierless scavenged such ancient rags.

“Why are you hiding it?” Shawna asked.

“It’s the Night of Crusades.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m keeping Sparrows away from the reception.” Kali glanced over her shoulder.

“Mr. Roake will want it there.”

“I’m not so sure.” Looking at Shawna was like looking in the mirror, only instead of seeing her reflection, Kali saw an evil twin. Shawna had the exact same raven hair and bright eyes, identical to Mr. Roake’s late wife and why they were hand-picked to nurse the morning and the night.

January Secret Agent #42 -- REMOVED

(genre not included in this contest)

January Secret Agent #41

TITLE: TRUTH BE TOLD
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Verity sank deeper into the chair with the tattered fabric on the arm. She wound the familiar threads around her index finger, waiting for Principal Weaver to get on with it. Outside, the wind tossed brilliant orange maple leaves around in the rain.

Principal Weaver folded her hands over her desk blotter and spoke. “In your favorite seat, I see.”

Verity let out a little breath of laughter. “What can I say?” she said, her hands going palm up. “Your office is just so cozy.” She crossed her legs.

"Tell me what happened,” said Principal Weaver.

“The fire alarm went off. A hallway was destroyed. And here I am.”

“Yes, yes,” said the woman with a sigh. “I can see you are going to be as cooperative as usual.” Verity wondered if it was appropriate for a principal to show such a tendency towards sarcasm, as the woman turned to the boy sitting to her right.

“Okay, William. What’s your story?”

Verity regarded him. Until then she’d tried not to look at him, but now she figured a glance couldn’t hurt. Okay, maybe more than a glance.

His brown hair picked up the pallid light coming in from the window, his careless waves somehow perfect. She noted accents of blonde and red, then studied safer surroundings: a vase of fake flowers, a framed photo of two smiling kids, a miniature U.S. flag aside a miniature Massachusetts state flag. Verity began inspecting the inspirational posters on the wall when Will spoke.

January Secret Agent #40

TITLE: THE HEALER OF HEARTS
GENRE: YA Fantasy

My magic burned within me. I pressed a hand tight against my chest to calm its nettling.

It was a perfect day for wishing a young witch-in-training farewell—and I intended to keep it that way.

I took in great gulps of air and blew out, imagining I was extinguishing a candle—a method taught to me by Madam Ben Ammar. The stubborn flame retaliated, scorching my throat and causing a dark cloud to hover above the crowd before us.

Papa’s hand on my shoulder helped tear my eyes from the sky. His eyes, warm but narrowed with concern, were the same shade of blue.

“Do you want to leave?” he asked in my ear.

I shook my head, my fingers curled tight against the edges of my book. The milkman raised a fiddle into the air, garnering whoops and hollers. As he started up a jumping, lilting reel, the crowd reformed in perfect synchronicity in two neat lines for dancing.

Distraction is often useful in tempering one’s magic, Master Saint-Pierre had often told me.

I pressed the spellbook into Papa’s grasp. “I’ll see you soon.”

His freckled brow lined, and his gaze darted from me to the dancers. “If—if you say so, dear.”

His worry over me cut like my magic did. But I was happy; defiantly so, utterly content; my painful, rowdy magic aside. And I was going to prove it.

January Secret Agent #39

TITLE: The King's 100
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Romance

After our parents died, I learned to handle my relationship with my sister the same way I handled a glass microscope slide - with as few fingerprints as possible and an irrational fear that one misstep would shatter everything. When I approached her office door, a voice spoke from speakers embedded inside my ears. “Princess Piper, it’s time for you to review your match details. Queen Evelyn sent me an alert to remind you at the this hour.”

“Thanks, Chip. I just need to talk to her about something first.”

A blue glow from the underside of my left wrist indicated that Chip was processing my words and communicating with my sister’s own Bio-System. “Dottie informs me that Queen Evelyn is currently busy.”

I sighed. “Chip, she’s always busy.”

Footsteps pounded behind me and I turned to see a patrol officer passing by.

“Princess Piper, your heart rate has accelerated and you’re not participating in aerobic activity. I suggest you return to your room to review your-”

“Chip, do me a favor and go silent for the next twenty minutes or so, ok?”

“Yes, Princess.”

I didn’t need Chip’s voice in addition to my own voice in my head, urging me to abort my mission. The metal door slid open as a service droid exited Evelyn’s office. I stepped through the threshold before it closed again. I tilted my chin down. “Your majesty.”

“What do you want, Piper?” asked my sister. Her office smelled like copper and mint.

January Secret Agent #38

TITLE: Blood Numbers
GENRE: YA Dystopian

I’ve had nightmares about my Blood Test Day before. None of them started like this. None of them prepared me for the nightmare of reality.

When a Technician is on my porch, in his white lab coat and black bag in hand, my mind goes blank. I blink over and over, willing myself to wake up, yet here he stands before me with unnatural precision and a purposeful stare.

Stitched over the pocket of his coat, the giant red letters “DMR” stand out against all the white, like blood seeping from a wound. My sweaty palm slides against our wobbly door handle.

Why is he here? It’s June. I’m not yet sixteen. My birthday isn’t for another month. Surely, this Technician is mistaken, or lost, but the Division of Medical Resources doesn’t make mistakes.

“Aston Vazeto?”

His pronunciation of my Hungarian name is close enough, so I nod. He eyes my body in a way that makes me cross an arm over my chest. I hide behind my hair as it inches over my face, hopefully masking my shock and fear.

This Technician is older than I expected, and surely too old to be donating. His hair is greying on the sides and worry lines linger on his brow. When he flashes an eerie donor smile, my heart quickens. All citizens like me are donors to some degree, but he looks too healthy to still be donating at his age. Why, when I’m alone, weeks away from my Blood Test Day, is he here- without notification or preamble?

January Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Neither Fish nor Fowl
GENRE: Adult Mystery

Ashly plays with the rag dolls, his Aunt Teresa made for him with love and detail, 5 birthdays ago. The dolls are small, can be hidden quickly behind a pillow or under a cushion should his father, Frank, enter the room. Ashly is too old for dolls, but they have become a talisman, a quiet rebellion, and a comfort. He hears Papa’s footfalls in his study above. They are rhythmic, like a distant jungle drum. The drumming settles into a headache of anxiety. Papa paces when he has a pronouncement, and the pronouncements come when he has decided that something, anything, must be done with his disappointing son.

Ashly watches Teresa on the settee. She’s trying to knit, but with each footfall of her brother Frank, she drops a stitch and murmurs, “Drat.” She puts the wool aside and picks up her ever-present hanky.
Frank calls from the landing, “Teresa.” The anger in his voice startles. Teresa jumps with a fright, and within a minute she stands in the doorway of his study. Her doughy body is encased in a dress that squeezes her fat with the same relish with which she wrings her lace hanky.

“Frank?” she demurs.

“Come in and close the door.” He clips each word.

She eases the heavy mahogany door behind her.

Ashly has followed and presses one ear against the cool wood of the now ajar door. In spite of his small size and feminine manner, he has courage.

January Secret Agent #36

TITLE: DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

I swore on the day she died that Mom would never disappear.

I’ve kept true to my vow.

She loved spring’s baby lime-green leaves, but hated forsythia yellow. The fact that the leaves still unfurl and the yellow’s still ugly, but she’s gone, kills me. Especially today.

Hurrying down my street, I pull off some forsythia blossoms from the bushes in a neighbor’s yard, crushing the petals. Getting home from school has already taken too long, and the trembling went into double time two blocks back.

I need to be there.

Two more houses to go. The front door key ready, gripped in my sweaty hand. My heart pounds against its cage, trying to escape.

Then, the familiar whine from Daisy, Mr. Shapiro’s cockapoo, slows my steps. The red door of my house is so close, but Daisy’s up on her arthritic back legs, her front ones scrabbling at the low fence.
My need pulls at me, but Daisy’s wheezing pulls at me, too.

I stuff my keys into my jeans pocket and toss the smashed petals.

“Just a short one this time, Daze.” I lean over, let her lick my wrist before I rub behind her right ear, down to her jaw and scratch away. If dogs could purr, Daisy would be a purrer.

Mom and Mr. Shapiro used to compare Daisy and me since we were the exact same age. Daisy ran at seven months, I couldn’t crawl. Daisy was housetrained; I was in diapers. We both hated baths.

January Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Con Me Once
GENRE: Adult commercial action-adventure

Raunch sat on the edge of the pool with his foot on the drowning man’s back and wondered if he had time for a smoke. Turns out you really can drown someone in three feet of water­—if you knock him out first.

He thought it would be more difficult. Not the physical punch—he was as tough as they come, if he dared say so himself—but the emotional wallop. Despite an extensive criminal record for a variety of minor offenses, he’d never whacked anyone before, and he expected a rush of fear or horror or…something. Instead, he felt numb. The way he saw it, if the mob wanted this poor guy dead, he wasn’t a stellar citizen to begin with, and when you’re hungry and months behind on the rent, well, the truth is, money makes a great anesthetic.

The neighbor’s hound dog howled a warning. Raunch jerked, splashing water over the top of his grungy canvas sneaker. He cursed under his breath and scrambled to his feet. The scraggly brown hedge separating the two suburban houses rustled. The darkness, interrupted only by the dim glow of a dozen solar lights tracing the kidney-shaped outline of the pool, obscured the source.

The rustling grew louder, more violent. Raunch tapped the cigarette back in its pack and pulled out his gun instead. Tonight had been easy so far—too easy. He should’ve known better. It looked like things were about to change.

January Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Eva’s Soul
GENRE: YA Speculative Fiction

Eva realized that playing dead was the only escape shehadn’t tried yet.

She’d tried everything else—prying open the window, sliding the hinges out of the door, and even barging from the door the second it opened. She usually made it downstairs, and once nearly made it outside, but the soldiers in green uniforms always caught her. Then they went wild on her.
She stared at the concrete walls and rocked back and forth on her heels. If only she had a bit of that old magic her parents had whispered about, she could use it to break out.

The door of her cell bashed open. She dropped to the icycement floor and closed her eyes. Soon it would be time to play dead—just one more beating.

She gritted her teeth. She’d do whatever it took to save her sister.

As the boots and fists came at her, she curled up into a ball. To protect her teeth from breaking, she wrapped her arms over her head and tucked her knees up to her forehead. To stop shaking she tensed all her muscles from her face to her feet.

Not reacting made them go away sooner, so she did her usual trick—she pictured each pain receptor lighting up, shooting its little signal towards her brain, and then bouncing around her skull. That’s all pain was—all she was—electric signals, chemicals, blood and bone. Nothing more.

January Secret Agent #33

TITLE: OF WINGS
GENRE: YA Fantasy

White fabric slapped against rafters as an arid breeze gusted through the open window. Phoebe stiffened—the wedding dress arrived this morning with a messenger and its presence mocked her every move, a stark reminder of the realities she faced tomorrow. Her skin crawled at the thought of General Skahill’s hands on her body, and a strangled noise came from the back of her throat. The only place that dress deserved to be was buried deep in the nearest dung pile.

With shaking hands, it only took a few moments to pack her scant wardrobe of threadbare tunics and the one cloak she’d been allowed to keep of her mother’s. Her heart twisted as she slammed the chest’s lid shut and slid down the ladder from the loft. She needed to get away, even if just for a few moments. Toes digging into the worn dirt floor, she dashed outside and glanced toward the trees that towered beyond the village. The forest beckoned her—it always did.

At the outskirts of the village, she hesitated to ensure no soldiers were posted on the road before sprinting toward the twisted trees. Ducking into the dark shelter of the forest’s canopy, she careened down a well tread trail leading to the river. When she reached the riverbank, she barely slowed as she yanked off her tunic and dove in. Icy water enveloped her, a shock that sucked the air from her lungs, and Phoebe’s eyes drifted shut as her body sunk toward the silty riverbed.

January Secret Agent #32

TITLE: The Unfairness of Us
GENRE: Adult Suspense

   I’d love to start counting right about now, maybe even out loud.  But I know well enough to reserve my coping skills. After all, no one wants to realize they are trying my patience. Instead, I am genuinely attempting to stay cool, calm, and collected.
    “Do you need help with your bags?” the middle-aged, impeccably dressed woman enquires in far too sweet a voice. Before I can answer, she predictably adds, “Not that I could assist you, but I’m sure someone here might.”
    I reply firmly, “I’ll be fine.” A lie in the grand scheme of things, but concerning carrying up a duffle bag, a backpack, and my cross-body bag, yeah, I got this.
    She ushers me to a mahogany staircase, which is so clean, and substantial that they appear to have been installed in the nick of time for my arrival.
    She grasps me, preventing me from continuing further. The grip heats my shoulder, and her intent to welcome me has the opposite effect. Instead, I envision myself flying up the stairs leaving her far behind, but that is not the case. I must play nice. I need a place to stay and her home, a step above an average Airbnb, fits the bill nicely.
    The room I am renting is meant for visiting professors or high tech geniuses, in town for short periods of time to fix big problems. Someone like me, with my plans, should not be here in such a charming home.

January Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Conventional Magic
GENRE: YA Magical Realism

I promised Aunt Jodie I wouldn’t hex anyone this Con.

But it was very tempting. Especially when one second a red shirt Trekkie, can be hitting on you in Klingon and the next minute he’s trailing after a pink Power Ranger, leaving you with a towering mass of boxes in your arms and a closing door.

Even though the Con hadn’t officially started, it warmed my heart when vendors arrived in cosplay. It lent a certain energy to set up day. Half of me wished I was outfitted in my working cosplay but wings make it extremely hard to unload all the boxes and set up the pergola all by myself.
However, my heart cooled a little when people forgot the art of common decency; like opening up doors for people whose arms are laden down with heavy objects. Those people were in danger of being hexed.

A slight breeze of AC hit my face. I twitched my nose and the slowly closing door flew open.

“Psh, who needs help,” I said to no one in particular, flashing my vendor badge to the Con security team.

They waved me through without a glance. I wasn’t a weapons vendor and therefore to them posed less of a threat. It’s amazing what a smile can do.

“What’s with the door?”

“Been doing that all day. Probably the wind.”

No, no my dear fellow, not wind. Witch. I’d forgive him for not understanding, just this once.

 “Hey Gwen, hold on!”

My witchy senses tingled in a new alert.

January Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Spinout
GENRE: YA contemporary

           Turn Three rushes at me. I brake, tug the wheel to the left. My racecar—the Mirage 2—slews sideways through the sharp curve. I straighten out with a flick of the wheel, floor the throttle. My Pontiac thunders onto the short straight.
            I am so killing the Oklahoma City Raceway.
            As I set up for the next turn, I touch the wrinkled photo taped to my dash. My father gives the camera a thumbs up. Wish he could be here to see me race. But he’s not happy unless he’s behind the wheel of a fast racecar every weekend. I miss his encouragement.
            Even without Dad here to cheer me on, I need to nail the groove. Sure, these practice laps don’t count. But smoking the other drivers proves I can blow their doors off, even though they have more racing experience than I do at sixteen.
            Fast practice sessions also give me a huge confidence boost for tomorrow’s 100 lap race. As a rookie on the Junior Stock Car Racing Circuit, I need to finish fifth or better in three of my first six races. Otherwise, I’m ineligible for any Junior Circuit race for the rest of the summer.
            It won’t be easy. But I’ve dreamed of this forever. Now that I made Juniors, I plan to stay here.
            As I exit Five, Reid Matthews’ red and white Dodge closes up on me until it fills my mirrors.    

January Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Diplomatic Immunity
GENRE: Adult thriller

Diana Avery straightened out the speaker wires and turned on her wireless Bluetooth headset. By a switch of a button, this connected her to security on the second floor. Small jolts of tingling energy ran up and down her fingers when she fastened the wires to the podium. After a quick glimpse to her watch, she blew out a breath. Before Prime Minister Tattersall gave her speech to the Royal Canadian Legion, it had posed a mixture of excitement and nerves. And this presentation was a big one for all of Canada to hear any moment now.

Voices murmured in English and French behind her as the crowd got settled in. When she finished with the sound check, she pivoted and remained rooted near the doorway.

Almost time for showtime!

An African-American woman entered the room and approached Diana. She dressed in a Donna Karan black and scarlet pantsuit with matching pumps.  "Ms. Avery, may I have a word with you?"

 "Who are you?" Diana asked low and faint.

"Nicole Pembroke. I'm Prime Minister Tattersall's advisor. We spoke on the phone a month ago."
She nodded and raised her chin with her shoulders back.  "I remember, Ms. Pembroke. What can I do for you? We're all set for the speech."

"Prime Minister Tattersall wanted me to give you a message. She'll meet with you soon."

"When?"

Nicole handed her a sealed envelope. "Tonight. Near the VIP Salon. See you in an hour." She exited the foyer.

January Secret Agent #28

TITLE: THE SUN AND THE VOID
GENRE: YA Fantasy

There was no way the babe could be alive.

Not in the biting cold of the páramo mountains where demons crawled out of burrows and prowled from stunted trees to barbed shrubs. Where in the height of night the breath came out smoky white, and icicles crusted the spikes of cacti. Here, an abandoned babe was nothing more than an easy meal.
So Reyna hurried. Her transplant heart thrummed as she hiked the tundra in the presence of shadows. Spiked cacti tugged her clothes and dead twigs snapped under her weight. A lone breeze sang past the sparse trees, then chilled her right through the openings of her clothes.

It wasn’t so much that the darkness frightened her, but what it meant to be here. What rescuing the babe meant.

Cold perspiration hugged her palms underneath her leather gloves. Her hand found the hilt of her sword on its own, the feel of it becoming a reassurance. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed.

Perhaps the páramo had wards. The sorceress doña Wilgeva could have employed any kind of spell to alert her whenever someone with Reyna’s exact intentions crossed these paths. It was almost stupid of her to come on her own, thinking she had the power to change anything.

A shadow shifted from the corner of her eyes. The tall grass stopped breathing. Or maybe she did.
Reyna leapt away from the sounds of a pursuer, scrambling over stunted stumps and slippery, mossy rocks.

January Secret Agent #27

TITLE: First Course
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

           The day did not begin with any sign that it would conclude as a complete and utter train wreck. It began as many of my days in Chicago as a twenty-four-year-old “trend reporter” for Young Chicago magazine did, with me kicking my boss out of my bed so that he could take a shower, followed by me, before my roommate Scarlett had to start getting ready for her day as a psychology graduate student. While Cole was in the shower, I made a pot of coffee, put his in a travel mug, and left it on the counter so that he could grab it on his way to work. Only one person at the magazine – my close friend Blair the “cocktail reporter” – knew of our involvement, so we were very careful never to show up to the office at the same time. Our relationship had been going on for close to a year, and it was fairly impressive that no one on the small staff seemed to have a clue as to what was going on. He was our editor, and the consequences of others knowing were likely to be uncomfortable and potentially quite problematic for many in our workplace environment. Blair, on the other hand, thought it was terrifically entertaining.
            “You know that he’s been on the phone pacing in his office for 20 minutes,” Blair said to me as soon as I walked into my cubicle in our River North office on that mid-June morning.

January Secret Agent #26

TITLE: The Pharaoh's Daughter
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

Gaythelos had two different colored eyes—one blue, one green—and he used them to domineer the Middle Sea.

His right eye, the green one, watched the waves and interpreted the nautical map hidden in the stars. His blue eye allowed him to see what normally wasn’tvisible: the spear-barring sea sorceress, who had blackened teeth and even darker eyes; the twelve-headed serpent, who fed on sailors’ flesh; the scale-covered míol mór, a whale who sang only when it watched people drown.

From a young age, Gaythelos realized his green gaze saw the human world, while his blue exposed the Otherworld. A realmfilled with gods and monsters. Gaythelos stood in both, as did the sea. Whether the waves encouraged ship-splintering storms or the demons who enjoyed the destruction, Gaythelos saw the ocean for what it was and the ocean saw him back, which was why it left him alone. Most monsters wanted unsuspecting victims, not soldiers ready to fight, and Gaythelos made sure to train all of his followers in combat, navigation, and barter.Some might have called them an army. Gaythelos preferred to ignore titles, including his own: Attica’s prince, son of Cecrops, child of Zeus. Much good that did him.

How many times had he been exiled now? Four? Five?

The first time it had happened, he was eight. Barely old enough to realize what, exactly, being a bastard prince meant to an already contentious throne. The second time, he was more prepared. The third, he realized preparation was futile.

January Secret Agent #25

TITLE: IN LIEU OF FLOWERS
GENRE: Adult Mystery

Jagged urgent streaks in my beloved shade of midnight blue materialize into dainty petals at the practiced stroke of my hand. Grim and perfect, the stone structure exposes centuries-old secrets.
Most people have family traditions such as apple picking, camping, or oyster roasts. Not me. My tradition roots from my mom’s peculiar hobby of gravestone rubbing at sunset. What started for her as a high school dare evolved into a historic collection for our rural county. She said she preserves their existence, and maybe a librarian or genealogist may want a copy.

To this day, we’ve never received a request.

“Norah, you done? I don’t wanna be late, again.” Lucy, my best friend, kneels at one of many crumbling gravestones two plots over.

She doesn’t mind the dark mud swallowing her jeans. If she sunk any deeper, I’d have to extract her with the dead tree limb dangling over the Todd family’s obelisk. The lingering after-effects of an afternoon thunderstorm almost spoiled our plan. Instead, we gathered our courage to sludge through the muck of the oldest cemetery in Copperville. We’re isolated from town, on a dirt road behind a big box store.

“Don’t you want to add an angel’s ass to your morbid collection?”

Her seedy pride twinkles through her green-framed glasses. She presents a giant sheet of paper and points to the naked angel cherub in purple crayon. Even on this thirteenth day of February, my mom’s murder anniversary, Lucy knows how to lighten a somber mood.

January Secret Agent #24

TITLE: ALL HEARTS
GENRE: YA Literary Fiction

~JUNE 2001~

Rayne set her phone to vibrate. Her father would be pissed if it rang in the funeral home, but she needed it in case anyone called after the Graduation ceremony she was missing.

Dad doesn't understand, but Mom would, and she's the one who matters here.

It was annoying enough she had to be there instead, when the next day was the real deal. Her father's jaw tightened when she dared to suggest she go to Graduation alone. His voice cracked with exasperation more than ever, so she hadn't argued with him. It might be easier to get permission to go out tomorrow after the obligatory visitors left the house. So, she would play Dutiful Daughter, but be reachable if anyone wanted to talk to her--just her--about anything else.

Katie sat across the room, dangling feet making her seem more petite than usual for thirteen. She glanced at their mother--a painted shell, embalmed and enameled with cosmetics she'd rarely worn--before looking down to avoid the inquiring eyes surrounding her. Rayne's conscience twinged, directing her to go to her sister. But, she didn't know what she'd do once she got there.

Pat Katie on the head like a puppy? Or kick one of those dainty feet and tell her to get up so I can sit in the comfy chair?

Rayne wrestled a grin. Now the thought would manifest into action whether she wanted or not. She was better off staying away from the poor girl.

January Secret Agent #23

TITLE: The Last Time You Died
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

It’s my first time back at school since Ben died and I don’t know what to expect. Will my friends understand and support me or will they turn their backs and trash me? Can I hold it together?

I step into the classroom and familiar sights and sounds crowd my senses—kids laughing and talking, our advisor, Mr. Davis, shuffling papers at his desk. A wave of panic creeps up my chest, lodges in my throat. I draw a deep breath to calm down and it gets worse—musty books, dry-erase markers, cheap floor wax—normal school smells, now linked forever to painful memories. It sucks, but I had to come or everyone would have said: Gemma’s lost it and won’t leave her house.

Nothing’s changed since last spring. The same movie posters hang on the slate-grey walls. The same scratched metal desks arranged in a semi-circle—Greek theater-style. The same anti-drug flyers and list of classroom rules posted on the bulletin board. Arrive on time. Respect yourself and others. Users are losers.

Kids zone out on their phones. Two boys chase each other around the desks, laughing and trading insults, while in the front row, two girls braid each other’s hair.

It looks the same, but it feels different. I turn my eyes away from the empty seat against the blackboard where Ben used to sit, cracking jokes, touching my hand when nobody was looking.

“Gemma, over here.”

Micaela and Caleb wave to me from their seats. I smile and wave back.

January Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Where Blood Runs Black
GENRE: YA Historical

Loud, drunken laughter echoed out from the saloon and onto the street. I smiled, knowing the man would already be drunk this late in the afternoon. That would certainly make my job easier.
This was the end of the line for Wolfe. I’d been tracking him for weeks and weeks. Now I had him cornered.

I smirked as I eyed one of his wanted posters hanging a few feet away. They’d be taking those down shortly. Just as soon as Wolfe was jailed. Not only would he be locked up, but I’d be a little richer, too.

Wolfe was the only remarkable thing in this town. There was nothing more than the same dusty streets and ramshackle, wooden buildings I’d gotten used to seeing. Most towns looked the same, no matter what territory I happened to be in.

I pushed back the brim of my hat and sauntered toward the saloon’s doors. My eyes stayed alert, though I made sure to keep my pace slow and relaxed. I wanted to join the scene as a bystander.
My skirt did a good job hiding both the pistol and knife strapped to my legs. My belt was tightly cinched to accentuate my waist and my shirt was close-fitting as well. Any outlaw I chased was like all the rest – easily distracted by a woman’s body. If Wolfe was distracted, then he’d be a quick catch. After all, no outlaw ever expected a woman to be the one to bring them to justice.

January Secret Agent #21

TITLE: THE DECOY
GENRE: YA Fantasy

If it wasn’t my job to protect the princess, I would have strangled her by now. The journey to Varta was only a day or two, but it felt much longer. We had just spent the last six months training with Princess Amyrion, and none of it prepared us for this ride. 

Four Vatari guards and one stuffy princess crammed into a carriage felt like some sort of cruel punishment. The carriage was so loud and slow, it practically yelled our location. This close to the Meridian border was risky enough. The king hadn't even bothered to send a troop of soldiers with us. Not like we needed it. I could only imagine how useless they would feel around Vatari. 

I stared at Princess Amyrion’s hands as she popped her knuckles for the seventeenth time since I started counting. When she ran out of bones to pop, she fidgeted with the headpiece wrapped around her hairline. Her fingernails reached underneath the headpiece and scratched her scalp. My hands slipped underneath my thighs and balled into fists.

When the princess was satisfied, she sat back and stared at the ceiling of the cab. For a moment, there was sweet respite from her ticks. I didn’t hold my breath. A minute later, she clicked her tongue as she held a small mirror up to her face. She examined the red makeup that ran in a thick line across her crimson eyes. Surely, she was trying to personally torture me.

I thought of ways I could antagonize her when a sharp scraping sound grabbed my attention.

January Secret Agent #20

TITLE: THE QUESTING WITCH
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Every birthday is important, but for witches, it’s the seventeenth that counts.

I lock my arms around my knees as I look out at the gently rocking ocean, shimmering under the moonlight like a dragon scale. A steady breeze makes my long, thick hair tickle the sides of my face. This rocky New England coastline is as familiar to me as the floors in my house. I’ve never gone without callouses on the soles of my feet, salt on my skin. But only in the past few months have I seen so much of the ocean at night.

According to my phone, it’s two minutes to midnight. Two minutes to my seventeenth. And for the first time since we’ve started to meet, Lara is late.

“You came at the very start of the day,” Mom told me once. “A mere minute after midnight.” She usually refuses to tell me anything about what life was like when I was little, when my father was alive and around, but I’d managed to wring out that detail one night as we binged on Real Housewives. She was stirring a pot of eversleep potion – two strokes clockwise, four counterclockwise, repeat – and as usual, I could watch, but not touch. Thanks to her, the rituals of magic have always been frustratingly inexplicable. “You didn’t cry. You looked calm, like you were exactly where you were meant to be. Like you’d always been with us.”

I glance over my shoulder.