Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's Broken: Another Round!

It was a great success earlier this month, so I'm opening submissions for another round of What's Broken? today.


This is a crit round for manuscripts in distress. In other words, you've got a COMPLETED story, you've done a lot of revising, but you've got a scene or a section or an opening or a transition or SOMETHING that just isn't working.

I will take 5 submissions of 500 words of whatever's broken.

And then, hopefully, you'll receive enough critique to help you fix it.

PLEASE NOTE: This is the honor system. If your manuscript IS NOT FINISHED, or if you honestly don't have something that isn't working for you no matter how hard you've worked on it, please don't submit.

I want to target folks who are really wringing their hands over something.

Submission guidelines:

  • Submissions will open at 8 pm EDT today.
  • Submit an excerpt of up to 500 words of your COMPLETED MANUSCRIPT.
  • Include a few sentences to set up the scene, so we understand what's going on. (Yes, the 500 words includes the set-up, so BE BRIEF!)
  • Send your submission to authoress.submissions(at)gmail.com
  • Only 5 will be accepted. Please do not submit if you know you do not qualify.
  • I will accept 1 alternate in case one of the 5 for some reason does not qualify.
  • Same format as always:


SCREEN NAME: type it here
TITLE: type it here
GENRE: type it here

Type your brief lead-in here.

Type your excerpt here.

The excerpts will post on THURSDAY MORNING.

A short note:  Last time, some of the entrants did not include a brief lead-in.  If the excerpt is the opening of your novel, that's fine. But if it's not, it REALLY helps to give us an idea of what's going on before you drop us into the scene.

Questions below!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Fricassee

So you all know I'm a pantser.  Well, a panster-who-likes-some-semblance-of-a-plan, at any rate.  I actually prefer to call myself an organic writer, which has nothing to do with my penchant for whole foods and hippie patchwork pants.  Organic, as in, I write the story as it unfolds in my brain, albeit within the basic framework of plot points and where I'm headed (I usually know, roughly, how my story will end).

I am proudly Outline Free.  Outlines give me hives.

Anyway, something amazing happened yesterday.  But it'll only seem amazing if a) you are a writer, and b) you understand my pantserness.

It all started during my Morning Wake-up Chat with Jodi Meadows.  (That sounds all official or something.   Actually, we always say good morning and share our coffee.  It's like working in the same office with her.  Or sitting amongst ferrets together.)  (Well, not really.)  I was lamenting to Jodi that I had begun planning Book Two of my new project, and that I had jotted down two questions for which I had no answers:

  • What is my main character's goal?
  • What is her main conflict

I know, I know.  It's not rocket science.  But I can't TELL you how it makes my brain hurt to think about these things.  So I IMed the questions to Jodi, and she immediately responded with -- an answer.

For each question.

And the answers made sense.

And weren't convoluted or esoteric or stupid.

*pause to marvel at Jodi's genius*

At any rate, Jodi's input was just what I needed to propel me forward.  And--here comes the amazing part--yesterday afternoon, while plotting with a pen (yeah, one of those hand-held things) in my yellow, spiral-bound notebook, I CAME UP WITH THE ENDING FOR BOOK 3.

Did you catch that?  Not the ending for book 2.  THE ENDING FOR BOOK 3.  In short, I now know EXACTLY HOW THE ENTIRE TRILOGY ENDS.  Which means I can now fashion the story arc over the next two books because I know what is going to happen.

And it's an ending that makes me very, very happy.  Because, prior to yesterday, I had no idea how I was going to accomplish what I wanted to.

Guys!  This is new ground.  And though I've got lots of brain-pinching thought ahead of me (you know I hate staring, but I'm admittedly getting good at it), I'm no longer intimidated by the disorganized possibilities that lie ahead.  I KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO MY BELOVED HEROINE.

(Dork moment.  I love my characters as much as you love yours.  No, I love mine more.  For today, anyway.)

There you have it.  I am positively GLEEFUL about this!

What about you?  Do endings come to you first?  Or do they develop as you go?  (The latter has generally been the case for me, though I always have an idea where I'm going.)  Have you ever completely changed an ending after you actually arrived there?

ISN'T WRITING FUN?  

So I'm set for the weekend.  I plan on having an in-house crit next week (I welcome your suggestions/requests below), and then the blog will be going dark for three weeks.  BECAUSE I WILL BE ON VACATION.  And while I will definitely be writing (part of vacation time is Parent Visit time, so that means plotting/writing time), I am giving myself a break from the world o'blog.

(What? You'd like to make a donation toward my gas fund? Awesome! Jodi Meadows will thank you, since I'm stopping to visit her on my way to Mom-and-Dad-of-Authoress's house.)

More on that next week.  For now -- have an awesome weekend!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Celebration

Just because I'm all sorts of excited on behalf of my irreplaceable agent, I want to share the good news that Josh has left Russell and Volkening and, along with three of his colleagues, has opened the Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency.  (I was finally able to type that without looking.)

Read about the agency's opening day here.

And if you're planning on querying one of them? Give them a couple weeks. Because, yanno. Lost staplers and all that.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Aaaaand Winners

In Mr. Richman's own words:

There were a lot a strong samples among these entries, and I’m happy to see so many writers willing to work on their craft and provide feedback to others. Some of my decisions were based purely on personal taste, so please don’t be too discouraged if you weren’t selected.

But, since this is a contest, there had to be winners. Two samples intrigued me enough to garner honorable mention honors.

Honorable Mentions: #19, Violet Ray and the Magnetic Pole Reversal, and #21, Superheroes Don’t Eat Veggie Burgers. Each of these authors can may email me their pitches and the first twenty pages of their stories.

The winner: #22, Seagull Rising. I was really impressed by the level of the writing in this sample! The author may email me his or her complete manuscript.

---
Congratulations all!  Winners, please email me at facelesswords(at)gmail.com for specific submission instructions.

Secret Agent Unveiled: Chris Richman



A round of applause for the helpful and straight-shooting Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary for being our Secret Agent this month!

Chris's Bio:

Chris Richman is an agent working with Upstart Crow Literary, where he handles middle grade and young adult novels. Among his clients are Jacqueline West, author of the bestselling BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE series (Dial) and Matt Myklusch, author of the JACK BLANK books with Simon and Schuster.

Chris is particularly interested in novels with a timeless feel, novels with appeal to boy readers, and stories with commercial appeal and high concept ideas.

---
Winners on the horizon!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Fricassee

For some reason, I kept thinking yesterday was Friday.  So I had to think really hard before starting this post, to make sure I had the day right.  (One of those weeks.)

I'm enjoying the Secret Agent's "this worked/this needs work" approach to the critiques.  And you?  Secret Agent feedback is consistently helpful and often amazing, and I find I particularly like this approach.

As for me, I'm happy to report that I reached "the end" last night on my WIP revisions, and will now spend the weekend going back through the whole thing one mo' time before sending it to my second set of readers.

Which brings me to today's question.  We are often (and wisely) encouraged to "let things rest" before editing or revising or whatever we need to do.  Of course, this is an individual thing, different for everybody.  There is certainly such a thing as being "too close" to your work to see things clearly, but I believe there might also be a "too far" thing that can trip you up if you let something rest for too long.

For me, at the moment, going right back through the novel is exactly what I have to do.  Everything's fresh, and I'm ready to see if my (sometimes extensive) revisions work as a whole.  I'm not requiring a "rest time".

What works for you?  It always fascinates me the way our different approaches/systems/habits all end up producing the same thing: a completed novel.

Share!  And have a brilliant weekend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Hunted Humans
GENRE: Middle Grade SF/ Fantasy

A marble sizzled with blue sparks under Wyatt Parker's desk. Then the color vanished. The strange object wasn't there before lunch. He ducked beneath the gum-covered desk and hoped no one would notice him or search for what he found in the post-recess chaos. The moment his fingers touched the smooth glass, the marble buzzed and glowing clouds swirled inside.

Wyatt sat up, keeping his eyes on the hazy glow and turned the orb in his palm. An elbow jabbed his back. When he turned, his friend Miles grinned and wandered to the seat behind him. "Good game."

He clutched the marble between his fingers and hid it from view. "Oh, uh, yeah. Did you get past level ten last night on that game?" It was the first idea he came up with to distract Miles. Videogames always worked.

"No way, dude. I was eaten by zombies."

"Me either. A three-eyed werewolf got my avatar." Wyatt sat and shoved the small object into his pocket.

The bell chimed. A second later, his sixth grade teacher Mrs. Volker trudged into the classroom. She uncapped a marker and tossed it in the trash can. "Disgusting. Unacceptable." Mrs. Volker promptly dug out a brand new marker from the drawer. Even though she appeared reasonably young, she acted old and cranky. And no matter what the temperature was in Walla Walla, Washington, she wore a pair of kooky gloves. She scanned the rows for academic victims, her tiny eyes squinting behind enormous glasses.

May Secret Agent #47

TITLE: A SHIVER OF BLUE
GENRE: Young Adult Historical/Paranormal

A shimmer streaked from the edge of my vision, and Cloud reared, bunching up his hind legs so that I locked my knees and drove the length of my arms into his neck. For a second, we froze, suspended in space as his white forelegs arched and the cold air gushed across the empty paddock.

Then the grass came up at us, and he pounded his hooves into it. Again and again, kicking up clumps of green and brown--and then pink--and I realized that his swift reaction had just saved my life. He jabbed a last time, snorted against the bridle, and backed up across the paddock in a trained procession of muscle and movement. I leaned forward to pat his neck with one hand, talking to him while I regained control of the reins and maneuvered him back to see the ground ahead. It was a mash of bits. A long tail, paisley orange and brown, emerged from the mess.

I let out my breath with a hiss. "Copperhead!"

I never was any good at spotting snakes, but a copperhead shouldn't have been this far west. I'd only seen one once, last summer, in a fine wire cage coming off one of the first steam trains to arrive in our town, and that one had been half dead. I tried to suppress a shudder as I imagined the snake stealing through the grass and hiding its russet body in among the sunburned tips. Until it was startled into attack.

May Secret Agent #46

TITLE: Koru -New Beginnings
GENRE: YA Contemporary/Ghost/Magical Realism

Possibility died. Logic. Sense. They were the next to leave, and I started my slow claw to something else - someone else. It should’ve been easy for someone like me. I’m the product of lies. I am a lie.

But, the facts.

It was Tuesday. The sun was shining. The sky dazzled blue. I got home early - Tuesday being my cruisey day, if anything could be cruisey about senior year. Something felt different as soon as I stepped through the back door. I didn’t know what, just something.

Then I noticed the seashell chimes hanging in the window. Mum made me take them down, said it pained her to hear them, but there they were again after weeks of only a bare string dangling in the breeze.

And the windows were opened. The room full of blinding light. I do not come home to light filling in spaces, or the smell of sea air forcing out the staleness of a house locked up in goodbyes. I come home to darkness, stillness – a careful-how-you-walk kind of quiet.

I dropped my backpack, and beyond the thud of it hitting the floor, I heard her. ‘Hey Soph.’
She sounded so – normal. So very normal.

The hairs rose on the back of my neck, a warning I didn’t heed, and yet didn’t quite ignore either. Tread carefully, a little voice whispered inside me. But when you want something so badly, the facts, reality, feet-on-the-ground stuff disappears.

May Secret Agent #45 (redacted)

(redacted)

May Secret Agent #44

TITLE: THE NOTES BETWEEN
GENRE: YA

What would happen if the Moon suddenly fell apart? Would I be the only one to see it on this night? In Bainesville I would be. Maybe some boy in some distant hazy land would also be staring at Luna as She begins to disembody Herself - big white chunks slowly flopping off and falling to the earth, bursting with delicate impact upon the harsh humans. How exciting would such a sight be on an otherwise lonely night?

He wasn't bored, he just didn't know what else to do, so he stood in his father's boneyard - permanent, ghostly-abandoned vehicles all around - looking up at Her exquisitely large, round body; Luna was hanging low over his head, as if She were attached by string to his body. The harsh light giving shadows to his strong cheekbones and jaw, if he were to open his mouth his teeth would be as white as his natural blond hair.

Would the chunks burst into nothing but white dust? Would the powder cover everything, voiding color from human eyes? Would it make everything already gray simply disappear?

Chaffin realized that there wouldn't be much left in the world if everything bland disappeared. He climbed up onto the bent hood of one of the nearby cars and scanned the tops of the trees and the few tiny streetlights of the town in the distance. He searched the beyond, but he couldn't quite explain what he was looking for, only realizing that he had yet to find it.

May Secret Agent #43

TITLE: RED HERRING
GENRE: YA Contemporary Mystery

The liquid is the gilded ochre of donkey piss.

Doesn't taste much better either.

I vibrate the red plastic cup between my thumb and middle finger, watching the foul substance swirl in conflicting little waves.

Cherry bounces up and down on the bumper of her decade-old red Honda, shaking the car. She lifts her cup at me. "To the last day of freedom."

I bump mine against hers overdramatically, arm looping in a wide arc. A little bit of the beverage sloshes over the lip of the cup and cascades to the pavement with a splat. "Cheers," I mock-seriously respond with reverence.

In unison we tip our cups back. The foul drink carries the heavy stench of alcohol, sliding abrasively down my throat. The aftertaste will be worse, so I force myself to keep gulping it down as if it were simply grape soda. I finish first and crumple the frail plastic between my fingers.

Cherry's throat gleams unnaturally pale in the harsh yellow glow of the streetlamp we're parked under. The smooth column of her jugular undulates as her subtle Adam's apple bobs with each swallow.

I watch the movements, utterly enchanted and transfixed in a bizarre way. She finishes her drink and turns to look at me. Her eyes are way intense, fixating on me like they're probes, penetrating my mind. "What?"

I turn my head to look forward again. "Nothing."

May Secret Agent #42

TITLE: Unnatural
GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

"Come with me, Alexa." A voice in the shadows said.

I looked around. I was standing under the bleachers in the gym of my high school, West Palm Prep; my back was pressed up against the cool stone wall-it gave me a chill. The leftover scent of sweat, stale popcorn and spilled soda lingered in the air from the last basketball game. Boom... boom boom...
Boom...the music of the homecoming dance kept playing as the latest hip hop song blared and echoed off the cavernous walls. The bass vibrated my chest. Colorful lights bounced in the otherwise dark space.

"Why?" I couldn't see the person's face, but I felt the weight of the words they spoke, that there would be dangerous consequences if I listened. I felt conflicted and confused but more than that, I was scared. I knew in my heart I shouldn't go with them, but my mind disagreed.

The monotone voice took a strange, possessive tone. "Because you're the one we've been looking for."*

I sat up in bed, breathless. I'd never had a vision of the future like that before. Maybe it was a nightmare-but my visions have never failed me. What could it mean? I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and stood quickly, not giving myself a chance to awaken. My legs tingled with pins and needles as the blood rushed down. I regretted taking a nap before the homecoming dance, but I'd been so tired lately, I needed it.

May Secret Agent #41

TITLE: The Sky-High Adventures of Never
GENRE: MG Historical (with speculative elements)

LONDON, 1849

The last thing Never expected, on that rain-dark December morning, was for anyone to want to buy her.

She had lived at Tooley's for all of her eight years, and every so often, bickering husbands and wives or weather-beaten tradesmen would sweep through the orphanage, inspecting the children like sides of ham in a butcher's window. But she was always too skinny to be any use to the blacksmith, too pale to catch the eye of the elegant couple, too wild-eyed for the old lady in need of a maid. And so she had stopped looking up as they passed, stopped wondering what life would be like outside the grey, bare walls of the house on Castor Street. Stopped hoping.

It was Wednesday, which meant it was her turn to scrub the kitchen floor, and the thick stench of rotting vegetables and sour milk made her eyes water. She was concentrating so hard on not retching that she didn't notice the peculiar man in the top hat until he spoke her name.

'The child's name is Never?' The man raised a bushy eyebrow.

'Right little devil, that one. Anytime she's told to do anything, all she says is "Never!"' The matron pursed her narrow lips in disapproval. 'You sure you wouldn't rather take one of our other children, sir?'

You old bat, thought Never, don't you wish you could just drown me like a kitten. But she caught a twinkle of mirth in the man's eye.

May Secret Agent #40

TITLE: GESTAPO
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Logarithms and differential equations were sucking the marrow out of my social life.

What sort of scheduling sadist thought to make Mr. Wilson's AP Calculus my last class? It was boot camp painful. He even barked orders like a drill sergeant: "Rachel Hunt, you will write the homework on the white board before frittering off to the plethora of after school activities that keep you from doing the extra credit problems for my class."

Geez, weren't extra credit problems supposed to be extra? And to top it off, he asked me to mentor one of the struggling kids in the class. I couldnâ't say no even if it did add another thing to my massive pile of commitments.

So I was late. Again.

I had to walk past three couples making out to get to my locker so I was pretty annoyed by the time I stood before the door of the Menagerie office. I smoothed down my once-curly-now-fuzzy hair and put on my most serene face.

Menagerie was Springdale High's literary magazine and honestly, the best part of my day. I stepped into the room, slightly out of breath, and scanned the twenty or so people milling about. They sat on old desk chairs or perched on throw pillows scattered about the threadbare rug on the floor. As usual, the overhead lights had been switched off in favor of the four mismatched lamps resting on desks throughout the room.

May Secret Agent #39

TITLE: The Last Life of Avrilis
GENRE: YA Literary Sci-fi

In all my lifetimes before, I never witnessed the moment of Kristopher's death. The horrifying sound of collision sent me rushing to my covered porch only to find his long, lifeless body immediately forgotten on the cobblestone boulevard. And in each of the innumerable repetitions, I knew it was an image impossible to forget.

The discarded body of a young man whose name I did not know those times before. The way death so abruptly dismantled the quiet opulence of my respectable street.

A harried chorus of screams would be heard amidst the motorist's angry cursing. Before anyone could be bothered to retrieve the dusty flat cap or kneel to determine whether the poor soul could be resuscitated and perchance saved, a woman would collapse on the sidewalk not far away and all would descend upon her instead. The motorist would scoop her up quickly, following her sister into their parlor where - upon his departure into the next room - the woman's corset would be loosed. That part my mother would tell me when she returned home late in the evening. Or would have.

As for the struck young man on whom the dust had by that time settled, the rolling of his body to the side of the road would suffice until later when - upon consideration of pedestrian traffic - he would be further relegated to the alley between two rusticated stone residences. It would be another day before the sanitation committee was notified and Kristopher's body taken to the crematorium.

May Secret Agent #38

TITLE: The Black Ankh
GENRE: YA Paranormal/Mystery

Rissa hurried across the terrace, squinting past candlelit tables and dancing couples, hunting for her little brother. The nearest resort guests stared at her. 'Normies' always stared. Even in Egypt, thousands of miles from home. She tugged her sleeves down, hiding scarred flesh.

Her sister hit a high note, and Rissa glanced back. Sophie hadn't even noticed her leaving. Beneath the stage lights, Sophie glowed, a golden-haired angel--if angels wore stilettos, mini-skirts, and showed huge cleavage.

Rissa stomped into the garden. The music faded, replaced by crickets chirping their own romantic ballads. Yeah, it was a night of love--for everyone except her.

Towering palms overhung the path. They shed ripe dates, which her boot heels smashed into the concrete. She turned at the Red Sea Divers sign and headed toward the restroom building. Andy, her eleven-year-old brother, was nowhere to be seen. How could one kid be so much trouble?

She knocked on the men's room door. "Andy? You okay? It's been fifteen minutes."

A high-pitched scream shattered the cricket concerto. She spun and searched the darkness. Sticks snapped as something blundered through the bushes opposite the bathrooms. She shrank back against the wall.

Andy burst through the hedges. "Rissa!" His eyes bulged in his pale face. He grabbed her hand, dragged her through the underbrush to a wooden shed, and pointed through the open door.

A white-haired man lay on the floor.

CPR training flashed through her mind. She rushed inside--then froze.

A long knife stuck out of the man's chest.

May Secret Agent #37

TITLE: The Silver Strand
GENRE: MG Fantasy, Adventure

Isabelle scrutinized her honey bangs in the mirror, wondering what evil deed in her twelve year history deserved the world's grandma-ish silver strand to sprout. Thick like a skewer, it resembled polished silver, yet weighed no more than any other hair.

"Shame you didn't grow a gold strand, grandma." She mimicked the high pitched old lady voice the seventh graders mocked her with. "Then you'd be rich."

One time in science class, magnets attracted the strand as if it really were made of metal. A chuckle escaped her lips. That really freaked out the kids at school. "Serves you right for calling me, grandma."
Isabelle twirled the strand around her finger. Over the last few days, a pink tarnish had formed on the hair's surface and it withered like a prune. It no longer gave her an electric shock when she touched it. She tugged at it, but the strand refused to budge. Several hairs pieces plucked loose, making her steel-grey eyes water. Flinching, she rubbed her stinging scalp. One day I'll be rid of you, she thought.
The ceiling fan blew stuffy, summer air around her bedroom and her cheeks grew pinker by the second. Sweat beads washed smudges of drawing charcoal from her tanned forehead. Using her burgundy school shirt, she wiped her face, praying for a breeze to drift through her window. No doubt when laundry time rolled round, she'd cop a lecture from her mother about clothing stains. That is, if her mom didn't feint at her pongy gym socks.

May Secret Agent #36

TITLE: The Trolls Beneath
GENRE: Middle Grade Adventure

Some people think that trolls no longer exist. They are wrong.

Even if you have never seen a troll, you probably know these unpleasant creatures have granite-grey complexions, with various numbers of eyes and nostrils, two enormous ears, and giant crooked teeth.

Their fearsome appearance might be forgiven, if it weren't for the fact that they really do enjoy terrifying everyone, and crushing them whenever they feel mischievous or out of sorts. Once their victims are pulverized, trolls turn them into bland smoothies and drink them through large straws.

But we must take courage. Remember: even though trolls never die, they can be turned to stone with a simple splash of sunlight upon their scowling faces.

Most grew up in ancient times, before inventions like clocks and wrist watches. Imagine the disadvantage, down in their dark, damp caves and burrows, not knowing the exact time. Every troll was bound, sooner or later, to come bumbling out into the petrifying rays of the sun. So for hundreds and thousands of years, most trolls have simply been lumps of stone, suitable for sitting on, leaning against, or climbing over with perfect safety.

But it would be an awful mistake to think that rocks never change, even those made out of trolls. The rains pound them and diminish them grain-by-grain. Those troll- rocks become harmless, or at least we think so.

May Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Playing Hopscotch in the Dark
GENRE: YA

Mira breathed deep, imagining she could still smell a hint of salt from the ocean, 60 miles away. Huddled under the awning of Kurious Kat Koffee, she watched the raindrops become briefly visible in the warm light cast through the shop window behind her. Bright flares that disappeared as they hit the dark street.

The steady drip-drip-drip at the corner of the awning and the cold breeze kept her hugging the building. She looked over her shoulder into the light and warmth of the now-closed cat-themed coffee shop to see if she could spy her friend Story coming out of the bathroom. How many coats of lip gloss could one girl apply?

Across the street, the Jessup Family Printing storefront was dark, but a cold, greenish light gleamed on the long gray windowless side of the building that faced the side street. As Mira watched, the light flickered. A door opened - how many hours had she and Story been staring at this building? How could she not have noticed that door? - and Brody Jessup stepped out. Finally, she thought. She didn't want to imagine what he'd been up to, hanging out in the closed print shop until 8pm on a Friday night. In this part of town. Mira was pretty sure those women she and Story had seen stopping in for triple espressos hadn't been wearing patent platform thigh-high boots to go to the movies. Unless it was to the XXX Pleasure Palace theater two blocks down.

May Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Open Minds
GENRE: Young Adult Paranormal

A zero like me shouldn't take public transportation.

The hunched driver wrinkled a frown before I even got on the bus. Her attempt to read my mind would get her nothing but the quiet of the street corner where I stood. I kept my face neutral. Nobody trusted a zero to begin with, but scowling back would only make the driver more suspicious. I gripped my backpack and gym bag tighter and climbed the grime-coated steps. The driver's mental command whooshed the door closed behind me.

Yeah, junior year was off to a fantastic start already.

Students crammed the bus, which stank of too many bodies baking in the early morning heat. I shuffled past the dead silent rows, avoiding backpacks and black instrument cases. Two years of being the Invisible Girl had taught me a few things. As long as I didn't touch an exposed arm or speak out loud, the blank spot of my mind would go unnoticed in the swirling sea of their thoughts. Which was great, until I needed a seat on a crowded bus. With a soft hiss of water exhaust, the bus lurched forward. I grabbed a sticky seatback to keep from falling on three girls deep in mental conversation.

Two senior boys leered from the back row. The whole bus was within range, so they knew there were no thought waves beaming from my head. Yet, instead of ignoring me, they stared like hungry sharks.

May Secret Agent #33

TITLE: Cursed
GENRE: Humorous Middle Grade Fantasy

Samuel was already running when the miller's shed exploded. The wind whistled up behind him, lifting him clean off his feet. For a brief moment, he soared. Then he tucked his elbows in and landed with a thud, rolling several times before he came to a stop, flat on his back.

Samuel's experience with explosions had honed his technique for landing. If you are ever in a similar situation, you will find that keeping your elbows tucked in is vital upon making contact with the ground.

He opened his eyes and watched the white cloud drift down towards him. Puffs of flour danced on the breeze. His arms and legs began to report various aches and pains, but the lump in his throat hurt far, far worse. After an entire week at the mill, he'd begun to think that perhaps this job would be all right. Sometimes it seemed as though these catastrophes had been chasing him through all his twelve years, instead of just the last six months.

Someone groaned behind him and Samuel remembered the miller. He pushed his other thoughts aside and clambered to his feet, hurrying over to peer down at where the man lay spread-eagled amidst the debris. The miller's beard and moustache had turned white with flour, lending him a distinguished--if slightly stunned--appearance.

"Ooooh," said the miller, his eyes still closed. "What happened? Did I fly? I've always wanted to fly. I dreamed of it as a boy."

May Secret Agent #32

TITLE: Tell Me This
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

The footprints started at the edge of the trail.

Sophie Rowan found the solid ground beneath the mud and pushed herself to her knees to get a better look. She hadn't imagined it: the large impressions were still there, leading through the fog that was quickly consuming the forest. If she hadn't slipped in the mud, she wouldn't have seen them at all, half-hidden beneath the bushes that lined this part of the trail.

But that wasn't possible, she thought to herself as curiosity battled her confusion. The footprints originated at the edge of the path and led into the forest . . . but what confused Sophie most was that she knew, for a fact, they hadn't been there half an hour before when she walked that same stretch of trail.

Ellery Wildlife Preserve had closed to the public nearly an hour ago. No one was allowed on the trails except Sophie.

She reached into her raincoat to take out the thick blue notebook she kept her reports in. She wanted to mark down the footprints before they washed away, but a movement out of the corner of her eye made her leap to her feet.

"Who's there?" she called. At least the howling of the wind made it impossible for anyone to hear the quaver in her voice.

She could've sworn something had moved in the woods. She'd heard the faint crack of twigs breaking on the ground, and seen a shadow drift between the trees, but where?

May Secret Agent #31

TITLE: STARBOUND SECRETS
GENRE: MG SF

I pulled the dino-bot from under Venita's pillow and tucked the dead fish in its place. Then I wiped my fishy hands on her coverlet. There. That would teach her to steal stuff, especially from a little kid like Tole.

"Poppy Southway, Galactic Detective, foils the villain again," I announced to the empty dorm room.

I should have felt triumphant. Once more I'd defeated Venita, the school bully. But everyone else was downstairs enjoying Family Day at the Harledge Galactic Academy.

And I was alone. Again.

"Poppy?" a small voice called from outside.

Not quite alone.

I raced to the window. "Hush!" The last thing I needed was to be caught up here. I tried to shove the dino-bot into the front of my school uniform jacket. But ever since I turned twelve my clothes didn't fit right anymore. If I had one of those 'Grow With U' uniforms like the rich kids had, Fang the dino-bot would have plenty of room. As it was, I had to jam him in there so he wouldn't fall out when I leaped from the third floor window.

The bug shield tickled my skin as I swung my feet over the sill, but I ignored it to savor this moment before freefall. It was the closest I came nowadays to weightlessness. I probably should climb down the tensile trellis, just as I'd climbed up. Maybe they'd turned off the safety buffer for Family Day, maybe this time I'd be too heavy and break both legs, maybe...I leaped.

May Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Thirteen
GENRE: Science Fiction

Absolute dark spooked her, always had. MiKayla forced her gaze away from the black night beyond the screen-covered window and back to the bare room with four narrow beds. Only one was in use--hers. After a moment of concentration she clamped down her mind-sensing. She did not want to connect with any minds, outside or inside. Not yet.

She sat up, pushed her hair from her face. The thin blanket bunched around her waist. A trace of light glowed from her open suitcase where she'd slipped a battery-powered nightlight when Mom wasn't looking. One piece of luggage, that's all she'd been allowed. No books. No electronics of any kind. Not even a clock to check the time.

The moon should be visible here at the equator like in northern Nakbe. A sliver of moon shed some light. She glanced out the window. But why expect outside lights in unsettled, forested flatland?

A loud hoot echoed through the window and she jumped.

Screeches, clicks, chattering and other strident noises started up. She rubbed at the goosebumps on her bare arms. Maybe the huge trees she'd seen when they'd flown to this waystation last night cut off the moonlight. Flatland, dense with immense trees-- What work would people find here?

She sighed. Enough of questioning the unknown. Had she slept? She sent her awareness inward to check. Not tired, not sleepy, must be early morning, before suns-rise.

And her thirteenth birthday.

The day she'd anticipated and dreaded all year.

May Secret Agent #29

TITLE: TIME SISTERS, EXCERPTS FROM THE DOMER JOURNALS
GENRE: YA SF

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Blood and guts, trees and dirt, cover the outside of the dome. We factored it all in -- every possibility. But acknowledging the possible reality is different from accepting it. We watched it come. Monitored it. Saw its descent. So close to us. Too close. We were unsure if even we, within the biodome, would survive the strike. "Terrifying" does not come near to the actuality. (Words fail.) We've lost all communication. To our knowledge, we three-hundred-forty-seven are the only human survivors on Earth. Can it be? Maybe some other domes held? This was only one possibility. We scientists were the control group -- not meant to be the only living humans. No one wants to leave their assigned apartments. None dares raise their eyes to the blackness above that was once clear blue skies. It's hard to breathe.

Hi.

Year 73:Friday:Day 43

Happy Birthday to us!

Recognize your journal from way back 74 yrs ago, Great-grandmother? Even though you're recycled now, it's like we're Time Sisters. Because we share the same birthday. And journal. You were born on October 10, 2008. And I was born on Year 59:Day 29. And we have the same-ish name. You were my age when you wrote in this. And Mom gave it to me. To ME. We also share the same birthday. (Already wrote that.) And it's my inheritance, even if Mom and Grandmom chose not to write in it. And now this is MINE! Well... ours.

May Secret Agent #28

TITLE: The Glass Prince
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

I woke Mom up with a sound she best described as a helium-sucking squirrel. Like clockwork, she threw on a furry robe and stumbled down to the kitchen to cook my favorite breakfast meal; Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, burnt bacon and mint cocoa.

"Gonna let me help this year?" I offered.

"Nope. Shove off, birthday girl."

My guilt over this was fleeting. There was no other way to say it, really. I sucked at cooking. Give me a chocolate layer cake, or a peach pie, or a few sleeves of Thin Mints, though, and I'd snarf them down in no time flat. Competitive eating probably wasn't a great hobby for a seventeen-year-old girl. Luckily, I had my dad's fast metabolism or so Mom always told me.

I snatched a ripe berry before shuffling off to the living room to daydream of birthday presents and my party tonight. Wrapped in the blue-speckled afghan slung over the back of my favorite leather armchair, I closed my eyes and sucked in the smell of smoky bacon. My toes dug into the plush, mulberry-colored carpet and I let my body lax and my mind wander.

New clothes. Wait. Even better. Shane.

I'd fill my head with my delicious boyfriend forever if I could.

So when the vision hit, I half expected to open my eyes and see Shane right there smacking me in the forehead. Not that he would ever actually hit me.

May Secret Agent #27

TITLE: Winter's Wood
GENRE: YA Fantasy

It started with the dream.

The rain pounded against the trees. Lightning danced across the sky. The icy wind whipped around the woods like a rocket. It encased Evan. He was in his pajamas, and the frigid wind cut through him like a knife. He pushed forward, deeper into the woods. There was a faint light ahead of him, and he knew that was where he needed to be.

Evan shoved through the head winds. They pressed against him with all the force of nature. His feet slipped over the slick ground. Evan scrambled to regain his balance, grabbing at the tree limbs, anything that would keep him upright. He was so close; the light was right there. He latched hold of a branch, and with one final tug and a leap into the air, he broke through the wind and landed in the clearing.

An eerie aura enveloped the clearing. All the wind and cold had died, and the forest floor was black and charred. Dead flora crunched under Evan's feet as he walked forward. There was a wide ring going around the edge of the clearing, and jagged, black lines shooting out from the circle like a starburst. At the center of the ring was the white light. But it wasn't just a light. It was a person, a young girl, no older than Evan was, crumpled on the forest floor. She lifted her head toward Evan, and he saw the terror on her tear-streaked face.

May Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Chasing the Tail Lights
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The darkness is absolute. I'm not sure if my eyes are open or closed. I strain to push the lids up, but they're already wide. Not a pinpoint of light penetrates the space I'm in. Something covers my mouth and nose, making breathing difficult. My lungs burn for air, but I can only suck in tiny mouthfuls through whatever smothers my face.

I turn my head, crying out as a savage bolt of pain shoots through it. I waver on the edge of consciousness, wavy gray lines wafting across the blank space before my eyes. I struggle to keep my wits about me - what's left of them - fighting the darkness threatening to drown me. I gasp for breath, certain now I won't pass out. Reaching out my left hand, I try to find something to hold onto. My fingers scrabble over small objects, pebbles perhaps, that skitter away beneath my touch. I reach further, wrapping my fingers around them. Pain prickles my fingertips. Not pebbles. Glass. Small, sharp shards of glass.

Using my scored digits, I drag myself forward, an inch, maybe two. A huge weight pins my legs to the ground. I can't move them, can't even feel them. Raising my head, I see light. Not a lot of light, but light. Red light, bright at one end, dull at the other. I know what this is. I do.

May Secret Agent #25

TITLE: Cast in Gold
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The lined notebook paper was beginning to tear in the crease. I folded it carefully and slipped it back into the pocket of my jeans.

“Sadie!” Miss Myra, my foster mother, hollered.

“Coming!” I yelled. I pulled my thick brown hair into a ponytail. My foster sisters always ragged me about my looks. Called me high-yellow and tried to get me to admit my dad was black. Whoever my dad was, I doubted Rhonda remembered him. Rhonda, my birth mother, was nothing but pure white Georgia trailer park.

I hopped down the stairs. When I turned the corner at the bottom, I almost collided with Katherine.

Of all of my caseworkers, (eight if you count the “still with birth mom” time) I liked Katherine the best. Fresh out of graduate school, she was determined that I would be her first adoption, her special case. Difficult case would be more like it. Because, come on, who in their right mind was going to adopt a sixteen-year-old lesbian?

“Hey, Katherine. Well? Any news?”

She was already headed back to the cramped utility room that Miss Myra had outfitted as an office, just for these kinds of visits. I followed and tried to see into her briefcase, the manila file folders jammed in so tight it was impossible for her to zip it shut.

She slung her satchel onto the small table and motioned for me to sit down.

May Secret Agent #24

TITLE: Starlight
GENRE: YA sci-fi

Teenagers, they say, think they're immortal. Teenagers don't consider the consequences of their actions or believe it can happen to them, and by it I mean death. Death is something on the news. Death is only movies and games. It happens to other people; it happens in other places. Not to them. Never to them. That's what they say. But I have no idea who they are because they obviously have never met me. Because I think about it. A lot. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking about it right now.

I wince as I crab-crawl with one arm backwards over the ground littered with jagged sandstone. The rocks bite into my palm but I keep backing up until my hand shoots out into empty air. The drop off is behind me and I've got nowhere else to go. I debate for a split second that I could easily jump up and sprint off into the dark safety of the woods. I know he wouldn't be able to catch me. But then my eyes land on the reason I'm here, the reason this is happening, and I know I won't. I'm not going to leave her.

My mind goes to strange places, different outcomes, all the things that may happen in a few seconds. I stare ahead and watch him, praying he'll trip and fall right over the edge. Take a hundred foot swan dive to the rocks below. That will solve the problem. One of them, anyway.

May Secret Agent #23

TITLE: GHOST IN THE MACHINE
GENRE: Steampunk meets Cyberpunk Fantasy


Minnow chose the table for its view. She watched everyone, trying to find him. The color was fading from the late autumn streets yet the working drones and mindless shoppers still rushed back and forth. Dashing and blurring by, their movements could be broken down into a simple series of form, color, and data. Minnow rested her head against the window and stretched out her arms across the yellow speckled Formica table. The table's surface warped and curved underneath her pale skin; its edges cracked and peeled under her fingers. Running her hands across the warped bumps of the table, she inadvertently knocked over the salt. Its silver cap, dented and clogged, held back any spill. She felt like the salt, knocked on her side and broken.

"What's up today, chickadee? What can I get ya?" asked Dot, her usual waitress. Dot's eyes, bloodshot and a muddy blue, looked out of the window as she spoke to Minnow. "Wake up little girl. Ya can't sleep here. But I'll grab ya some coffee. Set you right up." She winked and rubbed her nose with her stylus.

"Any cherry pie today?" Minnow asked. "I'll check." Dot tapped her stylus on her menu pad. "You're in luck. Two slices left." She slung a brightly bleached coffee mug on the table towards Minnow, startling her. Minnow steadied its spin. The outside of the mug shined a gleaming white while the inside was stained with minuscule blackened cracks that snaked along its sides.

May Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Seagull Rising
GENRE: Contemporary YA

Give me a well-sharpened knife. I can devein a shrimp in less than five seconds, and fly through a stalk of jiucai, piling it in a mound of green shards, as if it's gone through a food processor. But when I drop the knife and face my life, I wish I were as good with a needle: as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart.

Ayi and I stand elbow-to-elbow at the kitchen counter making jiaozi, Chinese dumplings. Looking at us, anyone would think this was a regular day, because making dinner is something we've always done together. Ayi talks as she rolls out small rounds of dumpling dough with a short rolling pin. Her flour-coated hands work to a rhythm. I nod to the sound of her voice, to the familiar rise and fall of her speech, the tones that make the Mandarin language sound like a song. What the casual observer can't see is how my smile is stretched, how Ayi has to keep blinking to keep tears from her eyes. This is not a normal day. I am reminded with every stroke of my knife, with every pump of my heart. The knowledge hangs over my head like a guillotine ready to fall.

This is my last night in China.

May Secret Agent #21

TITLE: SUPERHEROES DON'T EAT VEGGIE BURGERS
GENRE: MG

It's not like I'm looking for trouble.

I've just scored two seats in the back corner of the cafeteria--as far away from the food-fight starters and wedgie-givers as I can get--when I look up and see a kid with arm pit hair and a bad case of acne standing over me.

“You call that a sandwich?” he says. A thick finger reaches down and punctures the plastic bag in front of me, grinding into what was about to be my lunch. Ketchup oozes everywhere.

He leans against me, his chin digging into my collar bone. “What's wrong, pretty boy? You got something to say?”

What I want to say is that he should consider investing in a toothbrush, but don't. Instead, I stare at the nutrition facts on the back of my milk carton and pretend to be fascinated by how many grams of protein are in a half-pint of chocolate milk.

A raspy voice from across the table answers him for me.

“It's a veggie burger,you idiot.”

I look up and cringe. Franki Saylor may be my best friend, but if word gets around Gatehouse Middle that a girl had to stick up for me on the first day of school, I might as well write my own death warrant.

The kid stands up and shoves me sideways.

“You talking to me, girl?” he grunts, leaning across the table.

Franki pushes her nose up against his, so close their freckles mix together.

May Secret Agent #20

TITLE: ALMIGHTY SARA
GENRE: YA Contemporary

It's been more than two hours since I e-mailed God.

I'm on my way to my job in the school cafeteria, biting my nails and starting to worry.

Not even a thunderbolt or a milk-turned-into-cheese miracle to let me know he's listening.

In the hall by my locker, two girls in skinny jeans bump into me, they're so busy yakking about the prom.

Forget about the prom. All I can think about is my e-mail. Maybe I shouldn't have put that part in there about how I'm about to get expelled because Jennifer McDonald stole the answers to the psych quiz and put them in my locker. Never mind that I'm getting detentions for a year.

No help in sight, I slog into the cafeteria and hope it isn't the hell it usually is. A room full of mean kids and a Gestapo dietary supervisor can make any day worse than crossing the Red Sea.

This demeaning job is the only one I could get, but I need it real bad if I want to go to college. My dad's not made of money, you know. I mean, he tells me this every day, so I guess it's true.

"Stop daydreaming, Sara. Put on this hairnet. You're not allowed to get any hair in the food.”

Oh, oh, it's my boss, but look who's talking. It's Ms. I-Taste-The-Food-And-Never-Wash-My-Hands Schroeder.

May Secret Agent #19

TITLE: Violet Ray and the Magnetic Pole Reversal
GENRE: MIDDLE GRADE/SFF

Violet Ray swung the machete over her head as a cluster of giant palm leaves snapped and fell heavily behind her like dead bodies. She continued down the switch back, turning her headlamp to light the next leafy victim and occasionally stumbling over loose volcanic rock. In the chilling darkness, no birds were singing and the slicing thuds echoed in the cold silence. She'd never used a machete to cut a path. No reason to-the island used to be mostly shrubs, a few palms and the mangroves lining the southwest beach. Impossibly, in the past few months, her arid island became tropical. The months of storms were part of the transformation, but Violet knew there had to be something else going on to make the foliage grow so fast. She was trying to figure out a scientific theory about the spectacular changes when yesterday's storm brought a fresh emergency: her water system shut down. Despite collecting huge cisterns of rainwater during the storms, she didn't want to lose it as a backup. Her Mother created the Mangrove Watercatchment Globes and she saw the construction completed when she was little.

The sun would rise soon and that meant another storm. If she didn't figure out how to fix the system, she would really be in trouble.

Unlike most 11-year-old girls, Violet's trouble didn't come from her parents. Her survival depended on herself and her science. It was her Mother's plan. She was made that way.

May Secret Agent #18

TITLE: The Cobalt Mask
GENRE: YA Dystopian

"Don't." I grabbed my ten-year-old trainee's wrist and saved his hand from the spinning blades. "The turbine will eat your hand in seconds. Pluck your fingers right from their sockets."

The youngster snatched his hand away in alarm.

"Always turn it off first." I waded through the shallow water and flipped the breaker. The steady thrumming of the blades ground to a stop, and the rush of the river buried us.

I kicked a metal bucket across the concrete floor. It stopped beside the trainee, and he filled it with debris from the clogged turbine. Once the idle blades were clean, I sent him up the tight access tunnel to the dam. I trusted no one to seal the lower hatch.

Seven years earlier, my own ten-year-old gaze fixed on the ungainly wrestling match between corpse and would-be rescuers as they extracted my own trainer from this very tunnel.

"They'll send him downstream," a fellow trainee said offhand.

"Downstream?" I asked.

"You know, downstream. He's no good to anyone now."

"Right." I pretended to know. No one I knew had ever gone downstream.

Workers heaved the corpse over the dam. The roiling waters swallowed it, but the bloated husk resurfaced and drifted away as its vacant eyes watched the sky. My mind replayed its final living moments as a jumbled loop of outstretched fingers and panicked eyes engulfed by dark waters that surged and gnashed at my heels. I'd come this close to being its companion, a discarded thing adrift downstream.

May Secret Agent #17

TITLE: DRACAURM
GENRE: YA Multicultural Fantasy

The dragon's piercing roar knocks me to my knees and I scramble to hide behind the mound of gold coins. The monster stirs at the other end of the cavern, concealed in darkness by a stalagmite ridge of crystal and the steaming glow of the furnace between us. The stench of sulfur chokes the air, as if the Gates of Hell have opened.

The roar's echo wanes and I hear the dragon's hard scales scraping across the gravel under its huge weight. I gag on the bile rising into my throat. I fist the silver Santiago medallion against my pounding chest. "Protect me, Saint James," I mutter with quivering lips.

I had devised a good plan, I was sure of it. Unarmed and not blessed with great strength, I used the best asset I had--my mind. With those nasty trolls gone for the night, the dragon was supposed to be asleep. The girl had told me so. I have a sack ready for the gold and a clear escape route. The dragon's treasure--the legendary Dracaurum--is all I need and I'm free to go back home. Home to my Mam and Pap, to my best friends Alejandro and Miguel Angel, and to my beloved potter's wheel.

Now?

Am I to die here in this Godforsaken cavern on a mountain? I just turned sixteen and would never have thought that would be my last birthday. It wasn't even memorable.

What had gone wrong?

May Secret Agent #16

TITLE: The White Prince and the Battle of Zion
GENRE: YA Fantasy

A breath of wind rustled the trees of the sleeping town. A sign that read Sunset Drive creaked eerily on the corner, and a piece of newspaper skimmed along the pavement to be lost in the blackness.

Hurried footsteps broke the silence of the night. The sound became louder and closer until a woman with a small bundle tucked carefully in her arms crested the small hill on Sunset Drive.

She appeared ordinary at first glance, with shiny brown hair that cascaded down past her shoulders and onto her back. She wore a hooded robe so faded and dirty the original color was impossible to tell. Her movements were jumpy, and her face bore an expression of panic and desperation; yet she still held herself with a sense of pride.

But it was her eyes that showed her true nature. Those shocking sky-blue eyes held within them secrets and memories and burdens far too much for a single person to bear. The eyes shone with a sense of knowing and understanding, but above all, determination. The eyes, so out of place on the youthful face, moved erratically from the street in front of her, to the bundle in her arms, to fleeting glances over her shoulder.

The woman passed from darkened window to darkened window, slowing only when she reached an alley sheltered from the soft glow of the streetlights. As she paused, catching her breath, her eyes continued to dart around, hurriedly examining her surroundings.

May Secret Agent #15

TITLE: Beelzebub Girl
GENRE: YA Paranormal

I stood in the corner of the torture chamber, back pressed against the ancient stone. The air was hot, sucking every bit of oxygen out of my lungs. Bright rays seeped through the few loose stones in the wall, leaving a trail of whirled-up dust particles in their wake. I sighed and pointed at the heavy mahogany door.

"How long is this going to take, Dad? You know I've to get to my job."

A guy hanging from long chains in the ceiling yelled like a pitchfork just stabbed him in the bum. That was about the only answer I'd get. Groaning, I averted my gaze, hoping Dad, dressed in his usual business suit, gaze fixed on the guy undergoing some major torture, wouldn't notice.

"This is your job, Cassandra. Are you watching and learning?" Dad asked.

Nodding, I curled my lips into a smile, grateful Dad couldn't read my thoughts because we were blood-related. My stomach turned at the metallic smell of blood hitting my nostrils. You'd think after growing up here I should've been used to the whole shebang--torture, famine, death and so forth--but I still flinched. Truth be told, I'd rather do my nails and smell of YSL than dust, sweat and what else not. Even at King Louis XVI's court, which we were forced to visit as part of a history project at school, I was the one who stayed inside and ate all the chocolate truffles instead of joining the cheering crowd watching the henchman decapitate France's traitors.

May Secret Agent #14

TITLE: Into the Hourglass
GENRE: YA ~ Urban Fantasy

I was weird.

Weird adj. Suggestive of or concerned with the supernatural; unearthly; eerie; uncanny. 2. Of an odd and inexplicable character; unusual; strange; fantastic.

In my seventeen years of life, that was the only word I had been able to find that properly described me. I didn't aspire to be weird, it just happened.

Everything started when I was seven years old and my parents were killed in some sort of archaeological dig in Egypt. I was immediately tossed across the ocean and dropped on the doorstep of my dad's brother who I only knew from photographs that were shown to me on the plane trip to Chicago. At least I think I remember a plane trip.

When we arrived at Henry Bell's apartment the memories of my parents and my life up until that moment seemed to be crumbling in my head. By the time the people who brought me to Chicago left me alone with Uncle Henry, I could barely remember my parents' names.

I tried to ask Uncle Henry if something was wrong with me, but he told me it was because I was tired and sad. He promised we would talk about things when I felt better.

I'm still waiting for that talk.

Uncle Henry carried my suitcase down a hall, depositing it into a bedroom that didn't look like it belonged to a little girl. Everything, including the wall, was beige. Maybe this arrangement was only for tonight and I would be shipped off with someone else tomorrow.

May Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Air Pirates
GENRE: YA Steampunk

"You've been here every day for a week, boy," the shopkeep said.

"Good stew." Sam tugged his hood, keeping his smirk carefully shadowed. He had thought he could say it with a straight face.

"I ain't seen you in town before. You waiting for someone?"

Sam just slurped his pepper stew. Though if there was pepper in it, Sam hadn't found it. Probably the spice had boiled off long ago--Sam suspected his stew had come from the same pot all week.

The shopkeep eyed him warily. "You ain't a knocker are you?"

"Wouldn't be a smart question if I were, aye?" Sam glared like a hungry wolf. He was only eighteen, but he could make an imposing figure when it suited. The sword at his hip didn't hurt either. Sometimes it was best to let folks think you were dangerous, as showing them only caused trouble.

Other times--and the way the man fidgeted with his greasy apron told Sam this was one of those times--it was best to play it friendly. Sam smiled. "I'm just drumming you, baron. I ain't gonna kill anyone."

"Course." The shopkeep laughed nervously. "But you are waiting?"

Sam slurped again. The silence stretched to discomfort, and the shopkeep soon found he had other customers to tend to.

May Secret Agent #12

TITLE: Unmasked
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

The lights of a town shone in the distance. Clouds covered the horizon, masking the twilight. Happy to descend the steep road on the hill, Delilah checked the rear-view mirror and glimpsed her mother double-checking all the beads on the opera dress with a book light. Seven-forty-seven, less than fifteen minutes until the concert began. Delilah dominated the growing trend of rock opera music in Virginia, which contained an intoxicating mixture of ancient and modern. She refused to arrive late. The gas petal sunk lower.

Her father did not budge.

She sped up a little more.

"Delilah, slow down." Her father used his stubby fingers to rub the sleep from his eyes. "Gods, my chest hurts."

"I'm fine Dad. We're out in the middle of B.F.E. All trees. No cars."

"Trees can kill if you smash into them. Listen to your father and slow down."

Delilah grumbled. "Come on. Dad don't you trust me?"

A thick cloud blotted out the sliver of moonlight. Her father expelled a gasp, clutched his left arm, and held a frozen look of horror.

"Honey? What's wrong?" Her mother unbuckled her seat belt and leaned over the back of his seat.

"Dad? Oh my Gods - Daddy!"

The car jerked.

Sheets of music flew all over the car as it rolled down the hill. Airbags exploded all throughout the car. A loud crunch came from Delilah's nose. Glass cracked everywhere and cut into their skin. The opera dress her mother finished disappeared out of a broken window.

May Secret Agent #11

TITLE: Keepers of Water
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Rydan drew in a deep breath. The dry air of the desert felt good in his lungs. He'd missed this place, his new home. Scanning, he found familiar buildings and colors surround him. It was so different from his home back in Baile. From the dry mounds of sand and scarce vegetation to the simplistic nomad life the people led, nothing about this place drew even an ounce of similarity to the world he'd left behind. Even with the differences it was about as close to a home as he would find in this world.

Looking over his shoulder he tried to pick out the places that would be best to search first. Shadows and ally-ways were always good. Spots that most did not travel, especially at night, abounded in this town. He'd been all over this world in the past few months. Coming back here had been wanted, but not this way and not now.

"More disappearances reported by the local authorities."

Below Rydan could hear the news anchorman's voice rise into the night. The warning was given, but only with a hint of real urgency. From what he'd heard, the police only had a few missing people, most of whom were homeless or considered runaways. There was discussion of the wind storms that had been kicking up the last day or two and the belief that nature had taken them at night. He knew better.

He'd followed Ricor from America through England and back down to Chile.

May Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Vessel
GENRE: YA paranormal romance

Lazy Pete's Biker Bar was a dingy hole-in-the-wall several miles outside Knox's small hometown of Sedna, Alaska. Tucked back behind the main road and hidden by towering evergreens, it was a favorite haunt for those who walked the worlds between the living and the dead. Known for making deals and breaking promises, their loyalties belonged to the highest bidder. Some called them snitches, others called them traitors. Seventeen year old Knox Acotas preferred to call them punching bags.

"Come on, man. I told you everything I know!" The thin man lying on the cement floor, his hands and feet bound with rope, his body shaking with fear, reminded Knox of a rat. Worthless, hairy, smelled like a dumpster, but he had information Knox desperately needed.

The moonlight filtered through the bars of the small windows in silver strips, casting shadows across the hard planes of Knox's face and illuminating the dagger in his hand.

Knox chuckled. "For some reason, I don't believe you." He placed his leather boot against the man's ribcage and pressed down. "Tell me what they're looking for, Red."

"I can't," Red mumbled. "They'll kill me."

"And what do you think I'll do?" Knox pressed harder until Red's breath came out in a wheeze.

"No, please, that's all I know!"

A rib cracked and Knox's foot sank further into Red's side. His screams were drowned out by the heavy metal pumping through the bar's stereo. Knox pressed his dagger against Red's throat. "Are you sure about that, friend?"

May Secret Agent #9

TITLE: Grimly
GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

He was taking too long to die.

Sometimes it seemed like these things took longer than usual. I guess I shouldn't be too eager to collect a person's soul, but the waiting and anticipation drove me nuts.

I stepped up to the precipice of the cliff until the tips of my boots hung off the edge. Leaning forward, I stared down the fifty or so yards to the ground below. When I shifted my feet, tiny rocks tumbled down the red-orange crags of the cliff face.

Yep, a fall from here will do it all right, I thought.

I liked places like this; places that involved danger. It felt like I stood on the border of life and death. I mean, I guess standing on the precipice of a cliff would be described that way. Life was standing on this cliff, death was the freefall ahead of me.

Life and death. How ironic. I wasn't alive, and I wasn't dead. That's what made this so exhilarating, standing here with my hair and dress fluttering in the wind.

But today, I wasn't here because I wanted to be here.

Sighing, I stood up straight and crossed my arms, staring off to my left. I hated that I had to be here early. Death had some pretty stupid rules. I could be doing something else rather than waiting for this guy to kick the bucket.

He was probably in his mid-twenties. A guy of average build, with black hair like mine.

May Secret Agent #8

TITLE: Mind Over Anti-Matter
GENRE: MG action/adventure

The explosion was so not my fault.

Well, maybe I had a little to do with it.

Okay, so Josh Thesman got the idea from me. But it wasn't like I gave him the materials. Or even told him to do it. When you steal someone's entry for an invention contest, you really should realize there might be consequences for trying it out. It was supposed to be a spray to keep your socks fresh for two weeks straight. With the substitution of one tiny ingredient, apparently, it becomes a flaming meteor crater on the lunch table. Who would have guessed?

I glance at Josh's empty desk as pencils scratch test papers around me, and I fight down a shiver. I could have been suspended, too. Ms. Drachen clears her throat, and I look down at my completed test paper. The teacher's unblinking eyes seem to burn a hole in the side of my head, her silent accusation sucking all the air out of the room.

Hey, I'm the innocent one, remember? The one who was robbed?

A knock interrupts Ms. Drachen's glare, and reluctantly she goes to answer it. Air rushes in, and long, super-curly hair creeps around the door frame. Corinna Schwartz, my next-door neighbor.

"I'm here to get Cole Uribe," she says. I'm impressed she can stare down the Dragonlady so coolly.

"He's taking a test right now," Ms. Drachen says, trying to shut the door.

It hits Corinna's foot. "The secretary asked me to get him."

May Secret Agent #7

TITLE: AVA
GENRE: Young Adult Fantasy

The cheap motel room was starting to feel more claustrophobic the longer I sat on the bed flipping through stations on the TV. Why is it that there are more Spanish speaking channels than anything else here? Better yet, why is it that I'm sitting here alone doing nothing while Mom and Dad lived it up at the Miami nightclubs? Huffing my bangs out of my face I looked around to see if there was something else that I could find to do, but there wasn't anything that I wasn't already bored of.

Dad had come home several weeks ago all excited, at work there had been a sales competition and he'd been the top salesman that month. This was nothing new of course, Dad was usually top salesman every month. This time his bosses had put up a prize, an all expense paid trip to Miami. As with anything that's free, there were strings attached. We were here in the middle of October, not exactly a month that you'd think, “Hey, let's all go to Miami!”

Mom had insisted that I leave my cell phone at home as well as my laptop. This didn't make sense to me before we left, and it certainly didn't make any sense now. After all, this was the second night in a row
they've hit the town and left me behind in the room. It was as if they were trying to relive their honeymoon days since they hadn't had one because of my unexpected conception.

May Secret Agent #6

TITLE: The Princess Protection Agency
GENRE: YA Fantasy

A huge horse thundered down the road, clouds of dust billowing in its wake. Farmers and traders scrambled out of the way to avoid being trampled. Carts overturned and livestock scattered.

"Who rides a horse that fast? Is there some war I don't know about?" Evelyn asked, glaring at the approaching rider.

"I wish," Ruby said, her hand moving to her axe at the mention of conflict.

"Who cares? It's some buffoon acting stupid," Ingrid said. She gnawed her bottom lip as her gaze flicked between Evelyn and the rider.

"It's rude. There's no reason to ride like a maniac," Ruby said, rising to her feet. Ingrid shot her an angry look.

"We need to let him know he should be more considerate of Norland's citizens," Evelyn said. She pulled her hunting knife from the boar they'd felled and wiped it on the grass.

"I don't think so. If I had to guess, I'd say he's very considerate. A real peach," Ingrid said. Still, her hand settled on the wand at her side.

"Don't be a coward. We can teach him manners," Evelyn said.

"It's dangerous. We should stay here in the grass," Ingrid said.

"It's okay. I promise not to hurt him too bad." Evelyn smiled as she stepped onto the road.

The horse headed straight toward her, nostrils flaring. The rider bent over the saddle and urged his steed faster. He sneered and made no move to change the horse's course. The dirt road trembled beneath its hooves.

May Secret Agent #5

TITLE: The Keeper
GENRE: Middle Grade

The last day of school arrived on what should've been the perfect summer day. The sun rose in a spectacle of hot pink and day-glow orange and floated in a pale blue sky with wispy, ribbon-candy clouds. The mountain air of Vermont was warm and fragrant and peaceful.

Well, not today. Nope. Not even close. Not for Jack Wilkes. Walking home alone, like always, figuring he'd flunked the pop quiz his sixth grade teacher had unleashed during last period, Jack scuffed up pebbles along the sidewalk. His mood mimicked the changing afternoon sky . . . gray, sullen, and waiting for something unpleasant to arrive. He'd been dreaming of this summer for a long time. Now he was dreading it.

He remembered what his classmates had said when he told them about his dilemma -- at least the part he could tell them about -- Calvin, the Fresh Air Kid.

“Wow! That sucks! Sharing your room with a complete stranger . . . all summer?” Tyler had said. “Sticking a kid like that in the country for the summer is like throwing a river trout into Archer's Pond!” Tyler had flashed the girls in front a devilish grin and a wink. They'd blushed and giggled and had stared at them both all through class. Jack remembered it well because he'd been so uncomfortable having giggling girls suddenly staring at him. He'd never been the center of attention, and liked it that way.

May Secret Agent #4

TITLE: The Stricken
GENRE: YA Dark Fantasy

My footsteps clopped down the sidewalk, urgent, under the sound of busy shoppers. I didn't have much time. The storm would be here any minute. I dashed into the restaurant where Mom worked, my eyebrows scrunched in worry. There. Mom was behind the bar, hanging a picture.

"Mom!" I yelled.

The sea of customers didn't flinch. They ignored me, like always, their eyes passing through me as if I were a pane of glass.

"You're not going to make it."

I felt my mouth quirk up to one side. "Wanna bet?"

I pushed my way through the crowd, grateful for the presence of his voice. The feel of him inside my head was like chocolate. Smooth, comforting.

"It isn't safe for you to be out. There's nothing you can do for your mother."

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. I had lost Dad to the storm and wasn't going to lose Mom too.

I dug my fingers into Mom's shoulder and forced her to face me. The usual look of confusion traveled over her face before a hint of recognition hit.

"Clara! What are you doing here?"

"No time to talk." I dragged her from the restaurant like a mad bulldozer, ready to flatten anything in my path.

"It's here," he said. "Clara, you need to run."

I peeked over my shoulder and froze. The familiar dark cloud moved toward us, gliding down the street like poison. Crap. We were too late.

May Secret Agent #3

TITLE: Dogwood
GENRE: YA Paranormal

I watched the clock; counted the seconds. But still, I jumped when the bell rang. Because lunch is the worst part of my day. I picked an empty table--a different one than yesterday. The chairs filled around me without a single occupant asking to sit or saying hello or even nodding in my general direction. Same as always. I studied their faces. I'd gone to elementary school with more than half of them, and they talked to me then. Maybe in sixth grade, I contracted a disease: Social Invisibility. Maybe it's contagious. I faked a sneeze. Loud. Not one person turned to look. I launched a coughing fit. Nothing. No reaction, good or bad. I opened my water bottle and poured a clear stream in the center of the table. It veered right, just missing Angela Baker's purse. The boy sitting in the path of certain disaster stood up, looked for the source--looked through me--shook his head, and moved to another seat. The water pooled on the floor.

The best part of my school day is the afternoon walk to the bus. Usually. Today, the unseasonably warm weather seemed to add to my restless mood. Spring had come early to Coalfield, Virginia. Everywhere I looked, bright yellow forsythia blooms reminded me of where I'd rather be, and the poorly masked stench of pubescent body odor rising from the green vinyl seats reminded me that summer was close. My last summer before high school.

May Secret Agent #2

TITLE: Warped
GENRE: YA, SFF

He turned the miniature screwdriver once more to the right, tightening the tiny screw into the hinge of the gold and silver pocket watch. The work was slow and precise, but only held part of his attention. The singular end of the telephone conversation that was going on at the opposite side of the kitchen was much more interesting.

"You think that we'd want to get rid of her as well?" she said into the receiver. Then she sighed, "Yes sweetheart, I know."

He felt her eyes on him, but did not look up.

"No, that's fine dear. We would be happy to have her here," she continued. "When can we expect her? All right. Give us a ring when you have the times. I love you."

Only when the conversation ended did he glance up from polishing the cover of the pocket watch. She smiled gently at him, which made the moisture in her eyes glisten in the light.

"That was Reese." She eased down next to him at the table.

He worked in silence for a moment, acknowledging her with a nod of his head. The morning light came through the window above the sink, glinting off of the metal of the watch.

"Charlotte's coming to stay with us for the summer."

"That's wonderful."

"Jacen," she said, wiping her eyes.

Jacen looked at his wife. "I know, Fan," he said, setting the watch down. "We knew it would be soon. Full circle."

May Secret Agent #1

TITLE: Abegale Force
GENRE: Middle Grade

I'll never get to Maiden Villas before Stephanie gets back from church and find out what Mrs. Egremony was talking about last night, when she rushed us out of her house saying, " your Grandmother Rose is far --but near?"

I'm going berserk. I guess she didn't want to say anything in front of Stephanie, but she's my best friend --we don't keep secrets.

I can hardly take another breath and stand on my pedals, to make it up the last of the hill to Ridge Road. I would have come sooner, but I had to watch Jeremy until Mom got home. Now I'm a racing like a firebird on my bicycle, I call Phoenix.

Stephanie's family moved into the Villas a couple weeks ago, and Mrs. Egremony's their new landlady. She seems nice, I guess. But she tells me, she knew my Grandmother Rose years ago--before she disappeared-- and before I was born.

Nam vanished in the Andes Mountains three years ago. The police never found her; so I guess there's always been hope. I've always had hope.

I turn right onto Ridge Road -- a crow swoops in front of me, and squawks-- piercing my eardrums; I swerve my bike and hit a rock--falling facedown into the asphalt rubble.

A slow moving car is coming.

Here We Go!

Just to reiterate for new participants:

Entries are requested to critique a minimum of 5 other entries.  Reason?  This is always about give and take, and not just take.  So if your entry is in this month's contest, please take the time to critique the work of your colleagues.

Enjoy!  As always, there's some good stuff here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Fricassee

Thanks for another round of awesome comments!  This community is such a wonderful combination of advice, empathy, and now-I-don't-feel-so-aloneness.

I've got a good link for you today:  Jodi Meadows's Beginnings: Action and Change.

Read it! We often hear, "Start your story with some action!" when that's not exactly the right thing to do. Necessarily. Jodi says it all really well.

As for me, I'm looking forward to an afternoon of revising with Ben and Jerry's new flavor on the end of my spoon.  HAVE YOU SEEN IT? Coffee and malt (MALT!) ice cream with a whiskey caramel swirl. There are no words for this.

Maybe I should just soften it and use a really fat straw.

Have an awesome weekend!  See you during Monday's Secret Agent frenzy.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

On Building Worlds

I hate worldbuilding.

That's pretty awful, considering I write science fiction and fantasy.  I mean, all genres need strong worldbuilding, but if one is creating a world from scratch, it's definitely more work.  The rules of the world have to work.

In fact, there have to be rules to begin with, or the world won't be consistent.

And, yeah.  I hate the time and energy it takes to think these things through.

I can say with some authority that it is vastly easier to write in a world that already exists.  My WIP, which is currently undergoing post-beta revisions, is set in two worlds:  the real one (on the Jersey shore), and an alternate reality (in my brain).

Guess which chapters are stronger.

To be fair, I've been to this particular beach town a dozen times.  It's my Favorite Place On Earth.  Mr. A and I honeymooned there.  We've fantasized about moving there (too expensive).

In short, I know the place.  And other than changing a few names and Googling the main drag to double check the names of cross streets, it wasn't hard to plunk my characters in the middle of a place that already exists.

Now, you'd think I would also know a place I've created myself.  In fact, you'd think a place like this would reveal its intimate details to me in such a way that I start believing it's a REAL PLACE.  And, naturally, this would be reflected with ease in the unfolding of my story.

Um, nope.

Because--and I'll bet many of you will relate to this--I see bits of my world and I understand them, and then I make the (deadly) assumption that everyone else will understand them, too.  I describe just enough to create the setting and hint at facts I feel may be important, and I go on my merry way.

And then the beta readers come back with a big, fat HUH???

Oh.  My partially-developed-and-not-well-explained world doesn't make sense?

WELL, WHY NOT?? It makes sense to me!

Okay, I don't say that.  I mean, I used to say that, back when I was writing Novel One (*shudder*) and Novel Two (*groan*).  But not anymore.  I really do understand the mechanics of worldbuilding now.  And the importance of clarity.

I still hate it, though.  And I still consistently fall short.

Which admittedly makes me feel incompetent.

It's funny.  I'm a visual-spatial learner, which means I have to SEE things to truly understand them.  And I think that works against me when I worldbuild, because you can't exactly SEE what's in your imagination.

You might think drawing a map would help someone like me, yes?  But I hate drawing maps and actually suck at it.  Which is probably directly related to the fact that I am irreparably directionally challenged.

It's true.  I hold up the thumb and index finger of my left hand to make the letter "L" in order to know which way is left.

So, yeah.  That makes things even worse.

Anyway.  I know there's hope for my WIP, because my YA dystopian moved from "Huh?" to repeated compliments on my worldbuilding.  I can do this thing.

I just hate it.

Some of you love worldbuilding.  I WISH I COULD BE LIKE YOU.  Maybe if you tell me WHY you love it, I'll catch some of your enthusiasm.  And maybe if you tell me HOW you do it, I'll learn something new that just might lessen my struggle a bit.

I'm ready to take notes...

Monday, May 9, 2011

May Secret Agent Early Info

Please note: This is NOT the call for submissions! The contest will open NEXT Monday, May 16.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES (please read carefully):

* There will be TWO SEPARATE SUBMISSION WINDOWS. Each window will be open for 2 hours and will receive a maximum of 25 entries. This is to accommodate my other-side-of-the-globe readers.
* SUBMISSION WINDOW #1: Monday, May 16, NOON to 2:00 PM EDT or 25 entries, WHICHEVER COMES FIRST.
* SUBMISSION WINDOW #2: Monday, May 16, 7:00 to 9:00 PM EDT or 25 entries, WHICHEVER COMES FIRST.
* 2 alternates will be chosen from the second submission window.
* PLEASE NOTE: You are responsible for figuring out your own time zone. "Time Zone differences" are NOT a reason for not getting your entry in.
* Submissions received before the contest opens will be rejected.
* Submissions are for COMPLETED MANUSCRIPTS ONLY. If you wouldn't want an agent to read the entire thing, DON'T SEND IT. If an "entire thing" doesn't exist, you shouldn't even be reading these rules.
* Manuscripts THAT HAVE BEEN IN A SECRET AGENT CONTEST DURING THE PAST SIX MONTHS (November-April) will not be accepted.
* You may submit A DIFFERENT MANUSCRIPT if you've participated in any previous Secret Agent contests.
* Only ONE ENTRY per person per contest. If you send more than one, your subsequent entry(ies) will be rejected.
* If you are a PAST WINNER, please DO NOT ENTER THIS CONTEST. (Unless it's a different manuscript.)
* Submissions are for THE FIRST 250 WORDS of your manuscript. Please do not stop in the middle of a

Your submission for this contest should be formatted EXACTLY as follows:

SCREEN NAME: Your Screen Name Here
TITLE: Your Title Here
GENRE: Your Genre Here

(Followed by the excerpt here.)

* No "chapter one," chapter titles, etc.
* You will receive a confirmation email with your post number.
* Submissions go to authoress.submissions(at)gmail.com. They DO NOT GO to my facelesswords address. Or any other address.
*PLAIN TEXT is your best bet! And if you receive a rejection notice that claims you didn't include TITLE, etc., please TYPE THE SCREEN NAME, TITLE, AND GENRE BY HAND and resubmit. (In other words, don't copy and paste that part.)
*It doesn't matter what you put in the subject line. The only thing you MUST NOT do is to use "RE:" The bot will think you are attempting to respond to an email, and will reject you.

As always, there is no fee to enter the Secret Agent contest.

This month's contest will include the following genres:

  • MG (including SFF)
  • YA (including SFF)
Questions below.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Fricassee

Happy Friday!

As the critiques for our first WHAT'S BROKEN round still trickle in, let me know your thoughts.  Has reading the critiques of longer excerpts been helpful? Do you feel like the collective critiques for each entry are pointing the authors in the right direction?

And if yours is one of the five, has this been a positive experience?

You know I'll always try to repeat things that really work well. So today I need your honest feedback.

As for me, I've eaten far too many chocolate frogs this week (like, an entire box).  I love revisions--you all know I do--but I tend to do things like eat entire boxes of chocolate frogs when things feel angsty.

Still, I got to chat with my awesome agent on his birthday, and that was fun.  He is an endless source of encouragement, optimism, and clear vision.  How did I ever get along without him?

(It wasn't chocolate frogs.  Because those are a new development in my life, thanks to Holly Bodger.)

Anyway, thanks in advance for your comments on WHAT'S BROKEN.  And for not judging me on the chocolate frog consumption.  And for, well, being consistently wonderful.

'Til Monday!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's Broken? #5

TITLE: SPLINTERED
GENRE: YA Paranormal

After entering the SA contest I revised the beginning of my novel. I've been trying to get the beginning right for YEARS, and it's driving me crazy.

This part of the forest is forbidden, but the smell of fresh cut trees lures me closer. I dart from behind a boulder and reach a large cluster of bushes several feet away. Chopped logs and branches litter the forest floor. Wagon tracks scar the earth. The wood gatherers might return soon. If I'm caught now I'll be searched and chased away.

If I'm caught after I steal, I'll lose my hand.

My heart beats a rapid warning. Run away, run away!

I know I should listen, but a small cut of wood calls to me from a pile of discarded twigs and branches. My practiced whittler's eye sees the figure of a rabbit begging to be released.

Stealing is wrong, I know. I used to buy wood from St. John's store in the village, but my mother has declared whittling to be a waste of time. She thinks it distracts me from Witch training.

The truth is, I don't want to be a Witch. Mother won't accept my decision, and has cut off my meager allowance until I "come to my senses." I'm not going to become a Witch just to get money again. I can't. It will cost me too much.

It's been almost a month since I whittled, and I miss my art.

Temptation's call is louder than common sense.

With my herb basket clutched to my chest, I move toward a large redwood. Something grabs my hair. I stifle a scream and reach behind me, feeling, praying I don't touch skin.

It's only a branch.

A hysterical laugh catches in my throat. I swallow it and untangle myself, leaving a few strands of my long auburn hair behind. My hands shake as I slip the hood of my red cloak over my head. I should have done it sooner.

I lift my skirt and step into the open. The crunching Autumn leaves seem to scream my presence. My heart flutters behind my ribcage. No one rushes out to stop me.

On tiptoes, I hurry to the pile and kneel. Instinct urges me to flee. I snatch the wood and dodge back behind the tree. Guilt nags at me to drop my prize--a block of cedar.

This piece was on the discarded pile, but something tells me it wasn't meant to be there. Zev, the woodcutter, owns rights to every tree on the island. Though twigs and branches are fair game, he demands punishment for taking anything else. I've witnessed Zev's cruelty and don't want to lose my hand.

Drop the wood and leave. Now, my conscience warns.

My fingers curl tighter around my prize as if they have a mind of their own. I want this wood; I need it.

What's Broken? #4

TITLE: The Inlaid Table
GENRE: Historical fiction

Beginning of book

No Good Deed Morrisville, Pennsylvania, spring 1981


Why tempt a compliment when the insults come so naturally? Still an optimist, Joey Peshkin aimed for the more flattering goal. She usually outran housework fast as a ferret escapes his cage. This day she wasn't trying to be a hero, just wanted to do something right. She hunched her shoulders, flexed her muscles, and aimed the oily rag at the smudged table. She would get this old thing clean if it killed her, make her family proud.

The table caused more problems than it was worth. Florid and fussy, every surface carved, inlaid, or painted, it emerged from another century a cluttered sense of beauty stranded in a world of sleek lines.

Secrets on a table. Everyone in the Peshkin and Liss families argued over who owned it and therefore in whose house it should reside, though its cluttered, old-fashioned style suited neither. One of its four arabesque legs slightly smashed and wobbly, it stood almost two feet tall, too short for dining or a study desk. With a palm's width of skirt carved of trailing vines, and a circular top 18 inches in diameter, the intricate marquetry surface attracted all the attention. Tiny chips of colored wood puzzled into images of unidentifiable creatures and flora anchored the center. A band of nearly geometric designs chased its edge and bewildered admirers, as no one could figure out the purpose. Joey frowned as she studied the outer circlet, swiping the polishing cloth over a variety of staccato maroon curves and slashes against a lemony background, trying to determine its symbolism. Despite her efforts she enjoyed no success. Flagrant in its presence, evasive in its meaning, the table harbored a family mystery that spooked her immigrant parents. Yet it remained a fixture in their home.

The inlaid table shined more than ever but even squinting, Joey couldn't see her reflection, not so much as the hint of a reddish gleam. Back aching, she arched and lifted her head, then caught her image in the wall mirror. She scowled at her 14-year-old face. Ghosts in a mirror. Her father's broad cheeks and wide smile formed under the winged arches of her mother's brows, matronly furrows incised above her narrow nose. A cocktail of her parents, but still no explanation for her red hair.

From the kitchen she heard the metallic clanks and watery whooshes of a feast preparing, smelled herbed turkey roasting. Passover evening imminent, a dozen tasks waited for attention. The holiday that proclaimed freedom demanded a freight train of work. She frowned at the table, leaning over to examine the edge design of tiny wooden inlays until the longest of her curls swept across its surface. So much for all the television ads that showed triumphant housewives looking over newly polished furniture as if they were mirrors. She read the label on the bottle of cleaner once more, making certain to apply it properly, then bent to her task

What's Broken? #3

TITLE: BOUNDARY STREET
GENRE: Memoir

I just moved to Hong Kong and have locked myself out of my dorm room. When I look for someone to help me get into my room, I meet a guy from central China. We'll marry six months later.

I tried the doorknob but it only jiggled. Crap. Na Wei must have returned and locked it from the inside. I banged on the door several times, but all I could hear were crickets chirping outside the screened hall window.

Great. My key and wallet were inside my dorm room. Where would I go if I couldn't get into my room? I didn't know many people on campus, at least not well enough to sleep on their floor.

Maybe I could stay at Jean's apartment. Only minutes ago I'd been talking with her on the hall phone. She too had just moved to Hong Kong and her place was a forty-minute bus ride north. Yes, I was wearing typical Hong Kong indoor attire--rubber slippers, an oversized t-shirt, and thigh-high gym shorts--but this was no time for propriety. Still, though, I realized it was a moot point: I didn't even have the fifty cents for bus fare.

I looked at my watch. Eleven o'clock. This meant my roommate Na Wei wouldn't return until the next morning. She spent most nights with her boyfriend, a gaunt engineering student from Fujian province, and never came back to our room this late. It was pointless to think about locating her. Even if I'd known how to find her, it would be awkward barging in on them this late.

Then I remembered: the guard at the reception desk downstairs kept spare keys.

As the elevator doors opened on the ground floor, my stomach dropped; the guard's desk stood unoccupied except for a tattered white sign. I wiped away the beads of sweat on my forehead. The building had no air-conditioning, so the late summer heat, combined with my fear of being locked out all night, gave my face an unfortunate sheen. I longed for a warm shower in my mildew-ridden bathroom.

I walked over to the desk, and tried to decipher the eight Chinese characters on the sign. I could read "if," "need," "something," and "return," but didn't understand the one character which described when the guard would return. If you need something, blank blank return blank.

What's Broken? #2

TITLE: Wensdroom
GENRE: YA Magical Realism

1.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a man walked across a large open field on a moonlit night. Instead of watching where he was going, the man could not keep his eyes off the sky. There was nothing he found quite so beautiful as a low-slung summer moon surrounded by hundreds of twinkling stars. As a result, the man often tripped over unseen clumps of dirt and stray rocks. As a secondary result, the man was unsurprised when he fell face down into the grass and felt something strike him somewhat forcefully in the back of the head.

When the man awoke from his slumber, he found that his best top hat had been ruined. He also found a milky, pale blue stone shimmering in the dust a mere foot from the tip of his nose. He reached out, picked up the stone, and immediately dropped it. The stone was burning hot. He drew his handkerchief from his pocket. Bending down, he engulfed the small stone in the soft cotton cloth. Collecting the bundle in his fist, he stood up, folded back the cloth, and inspected the stone. Still emitting a soft glow of warmth, the stone appeared to be swirled with traces of opal.

The man smiled and tucked the gem into his pants pocket for safe keeping. He resumed his walk and his sky gazing. Upon turning his eyes upwards once more, he was treated to the sight of a shooting star racing across the midnight sky. As he watched the star's tail flare and die, he rubbed the small lump forming on the back of his head, thinking more of his pain than his valuable discovery.

I always loved stories, except for my own; I wish it wasn't this one.

2.

At the heart of it, I always felt that my trouble with my mother stemmed from a difference of temperaments. My mother was a busybody. Well, not in the traditional sense of the word. While not given over to gossip, Mom was perpetually in motion. She moved almost hurriedly from task to task from dawn till dusk. She seemed to believe, in action if not in so many words, that idle hands were the devil's playground. She became bored and restless when all the work was finished and no more could be found. In dire straits she had been known to fabricate activities for her own amusement.

I was not the same by nature. When I took a moment to be still, Mom thought I was lazy. When I was quiet, Mom felt I was sullen. Where I reveled in solitude, Mom saw antisocial behavior. While I gloried in the imaginative escape of books, Mom lacked a true appreciation for literary treasure. From the moment I learned to read, I was never without a volume at hand. To my mother, I'm sure it seemed that I spent too many hours in idleness, my face mere inches from the printed page.