Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Fricassee

What are your thoughts on our First Five round?  Thanks to all of you who took the time to leave thoughtful feedback.

So, let's talk about the fine art of not confusing our readers.  One thing we need to bear in mind as we are writing our opening scene is that we know EVERYTHING about our world and our main character, and our reader knows NOTHING.  So we need to ease the reader into the story in such a way that time, place, and character are immediately apparent.

This does NOT mean:

Gregory Cheeseneck was a typical twelve-year-old with wiry hair and precisely thirty-nine freckles on his cheeks, who lived in a handmade, split-log house with his parents and four younger sisters at the end of the line, a quarter mile from the station and no fewer than fourteen steps from the outhouse, since these were the days of no indoor plumbing.

It might mean:

Gregory yanked up his trousers and tore from the outhouse, sure as sure that he was going to be late for school again.

Example #1 is heavy with description and telling, and sounds "narrator-y".  Example #2 brings us right into Gregory's head and shows us immediately (trousers, outhouse), that we are in an earlier era. It also gives us our first glimpse at Gregory's voice ("sure as sure") and character (he runs late a lot).

In our opening paragraph (and pages), we need to find the delicate balance between "too much" and "not enough".  And in my editing experience over the past couple of years, I find that the "not enough" is more common.  IMPORTANT:  By "not enough", I don't mean to imply that the problem of over-writing doesn't exist.  OH, GOODNESS, IT EXISTS.  But you can over-write and still not give the readers what they need to actually be grounded in your story.  And if they're not grounded on the first page or two, you'll lose them.

Here are some common problems that I've seen:

1.  ANNOYING HINTS AND REFERENCES THAT MEAN NOTHING BECAUSE WE DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT

Like I said above--you know your world and characters, but the reader doesn't.  So avoid doing things like this:

Marshina slammed the door and locked it.  Nobody else was going to get in and steal another sacred poo-poo bead.  No one.

It was just like that other time.  Marshina shuddered.  That other time almost cost her sixteen hours of freedom--and Sue-bear's life.

What would Sue-bear think now?


(We don't know what a sacred poo-poo bead is, we have NO IDEA what "that other time" is, or why Sue-bear would think anything at all.  You may think you are being mysterious and tempting when you do this, BUT YOU ARE ONLY BEING ANNOYING.  Trust me.)

"You have no idea what you're talking about."

I stopped in my tracks.  Yes, of course I knew what I was talking about.  I thought everyone knew.  But here I was, being accused of not knowing anything for the third time this week, and it was starting to annoy me.


(We're opening with dialogue and we HAVE NO IDEA who is speaking, and the protagonist is referring to something we don't know about either.)

2.  GOING HEAVILY INTO SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY WORLDBUILDING WITHOUT HELPING US TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE HECK YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT

This one is self-explanatory:

L'trxvy tiptoed around the detran, careful not to drop his f'nee in the mud.  Breathing deeply, he sensed the nearness of his k'n'oo.  That was reason enough to be wary.  His k'n'oo should have been halfway to Meerduck by now.  Everything was off balance, and it was only the second cycle of Gorshnik.

3.  DROPPING US INTO ACTION BEFORE WE KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER OR HIS WORLD

I've railed about this one many times in the past.  This is what Jodi and I refer to as "the car crash opening".  We can't root for a character whose legs just got blown off if we haven't even met him yet.


Glass shards everywhere.

I threw myself again the nearest wall, pressing myself flat as a leech.  Outside, a third explosion rocked the foundation of the old building, and I stumbled sideways, landing hard on my knee.

The shard pierced my patella, sending hot pain shooting up my leg.  I cursed as blood began to soak my pants leg.

(We have no idea what's going on.  We don't even know if our protagonist is male or female.  We don't care about the explosions or the wounded knee.)

Nathan gripped his handlebars and veered sharply to the left.  The road was slicker than he'd expected, and his sudden turn made him lose control, his front wheel jacking to the left and skidding for several yards until the bike flipped end over end.

Nathan landed hard on his back, his breath slamming out like an implosion.


(We know what's happening, but we don't know Nathan, and we don't know why he's riding his bike down a wet road.  So it's hard to care.)

And there you have it -- a mini-primer on How Not To Open Your Novel.  Mind you, I don't have all the answers.  Like I said, it's a delicate balance, and I continue to rewrite and tweak my own openings as many times as it takes to get them right.  But the huge faux pas mentioned above are easily avoided.  Let us SEE (show, don't tell) your protagonist in his setting, and draw us into the world (show, don't tell) by letting us SEE and HEAR and SMELL and FEEL it for a little while.  Insert a sense of tension right away, remembering, of course, that TENSION IS NOT THE SAME AS ACTION.  If you do this, then chances are high that your readers will want to keep reading.

All right, then!  Have a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

First Five Sentences: Critique Guidelines


Guidelines for Critique:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Please let the author know IF YOU FEEL GROUNDED IN THE SETTING/STORY and IF THE OPENING LINES "FEEL" LIKE THE GENRE.
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

Questions?  Leave them below!  Happy critting, everyone!


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

First Five Sentences #25

TITLE: The Killing Moon
GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Atlanta's Piedmont Park was a place to commune with nature. The dead woman hanging in a tree ruined it for me.

Raw poisonous power infected her body, leaving a quicksilver shine to her skin and an angry shimmer in the air like a magic bomb had gone off in her heart. I breathed in death, tasting ashes and tears. She had been tortured.

First Five Sentences #24

TITLE: DISAPPEARING ACT
GENRE: New Adult Mystery

Jen hated this part. She swished her hips from side to side and sashayed stage right.

"Yeah, baby. Show us what you got," someone yelled from the inky blur beyond the footlights.

Out of sync with the act, the homemade soundtrack finally shifted from faux thunder to the techno backbeat Marv liked to have playing between illusions.

First Five Sentences #23

TITLE: Click
GENRE: YA-Magical Realism

My Aunt Téa answers the phone just as we’re about to leave her creaking house. After briefly listening to the person on the other end, an ominous cloud moves across my aunt’s face. She hangs up, pinches the bridge of her nose, (she always does that to keep from crying) and tells me my dad is missing somewhere along the Amazon River. The phone cut out before she could ask any questions. I notice the trees bending against the gray outside my aunt’s kitchen window, and I wonder if any will snap.



First Five Sentences #22

TITLE: The Great Cookie Caper
GENRE: Contemporary Chapter Book

Amelia tiptoed past her grandma, but grandma was too busy stirring the spaghetti sauce to notice her. Mom didn’t see her either while she kneaded dough. Amelia pulled out the bottom drawer, the one holding the pots and pans, and stood on it with her untied sneakers. The bear shaped cookie jar was just out of her reach. She pulled herself on the tile counter and lifted the lid off the cookie jar, barely making a sound.

First Five Sentences #21

TITLE: The Portal
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Quinn tested the bookend’s weight in her hand. Nice and heavy, just what she was looking for.

Perfect.

With a practiced grace, she launched it across the room where it smashed into her mirrored reflection. Unfortunately, the shards of glass splintered from the point of impact but the mirror stayed intact otherwise.

First Five Sentences #20

TITLE: WHERE SHEPHERDS WALK THE WOODS
GENRE: Middle Grade

Ever since Osceola saved Calvin’s life before the boy could speak, their bond was beyond words. Calvin, standing still in the woods at the top of a ravine, raised his hand for Osceola to stay. Osceola’s floppy ears perked up as he twitched his nose and tilted his head. Something slow shuffled through leaves and snapped twigs at their camp by the creek below.

​ Twelve-year-old Calvin scaled scrap wood steps nailed into a Red Maple tree flush with spring seeds, their flat red wings dangling by his eyes like butterflies.

First Five Sentences #19

TITLE: My Dog Jeeves
GENRE: MG Fiction

Few call me brave, but none call me foolhardy; a Wooster knows his limits.

When the final bell rang and the old man was not at his post, I knew I’d have to try a new tactic. Instead of dashing out the front door at 2:19, like I did every other day, I lingered at my locker. Could I do it? Could I really slip past them?

First Five Sentences #18

TITLE: Pulled in Pieces
GENRE: YA/Contemporary

I shouldn’t have been able to hear the screaming, but something was different about it today. Rumbling shook the floor as I pull my headphones off, put my book down and sit up.

“Where the hell have you been all night?” Mom’s voice echoes through the foyer followed by the slamming of the front door.

“Who the f*** do you think you are?

First Five Sentences #17

TITLE: CASSIA
GENRE: Literary

The painting opposite the grill was missing. It could have matched the one I already owned—a homeless musician embossed over skyscrapers. The two works could have provided a private concert of city life dissonance, great architecture clashing with Dallas’ forgotten souls. But I owned a single piece, a hollow song of solitude. What’s more, the artist of both paintings was my rival, only she never knew it.

First Five Sentences #16

TITLE: When They Can't See
GENRE: YA Epic Fantasy

Skyrah soared over the moonlit plains of Dreamiridian, away from the castle of fools who were too blind to listen to her warnings. She dug her knees into the sides of her favorite dragon, Fia, urging her to fly faster. From down below, Skyrah heard a sharp cry that sliced through the night sky and made her hands tremble against Fia’s reins. She stared down at the biderak moving across the plains, its vast wings spreading out like the dark clouds of a storm and its claws tearing across the ground. “Turn back,” Skyrah hissed to Fia, knowing all too well that once the biderak took on an innocent human form, her family wouldn’t believe that it really was a biderak ripe from Angramador Forest.



First Five Sentences #15

TITLE: LUCKY THIRTEEN
GENRE: Adult - Thriller/Mystery

Luck – if you counted a co-worker’s battle with the flu as luck – kept Danny Jones alive that night.

A few blocks away from what was once the Hawk and Dove, Danny served starters, mains, and espressos to an older, and more powerful, political set. These were the elite. The men – and occasional woman – who controlled the country and who didn't flinch at dropping several hundred bucks on dinner for two. Danny didn't care for them, but they paid the bills.

First Five Sentences #14

TITLE: Smeltertown
GENRE: Mystery

Elias watched the children clumsily wrap a rope around the stiff man’s neck. Despite the heat imploring him to remain in the shade, he thought about walking over and helping, when another adult stepped in and finished the noose for them. The children and nearby parents all burst into cheers as the small man was hoisted up in the air. The man swung back and forth from the tree limb, its movements tracked by the children imagining the treasures buried inside its paper-maché stomach.

“Te diviertes, Rojas?” Miguel asked, handing him a beer.

First Five Sentences #13

TITLE: BETWEEN REALITIES
GENRE: NA MAGICAL REALISM

I hadn’t seen what I tripped over. Or, what had sent an intense pulse of pure ecstasy through every cell in my body, stealing my breath away. Time seemed to stand still the moment my feet left the ground. I glided through the air gracefully with no worries or cares in the world. For that brief moment, it no longer mattered that I couldn’t remember anything about my life before a stranger carried me into the Solo Souls Group Home.

First Five Sentences #12

TITLE: Prime Vector
GENRE: NA Science Fiction

Soon, Catita will become a host and live forever. Or, at least, that’s her plan. But, it’s not just about the living forever part. Although, she’s yet to meet someone that can resist such a gift. No, she’d like to think her intentions are much more noble than that.

First Five Sentences #11

TITLE: VANISHED
GENRE: YA Contemporary

My brother Raj and I stood amongst the trees at the edge of Signora D’Agnelli’s driveway watching her limousine disappear into the dusky evening. When we could no longer see the taillights, Raj shot me his sly grin. Instead of forcing a smile in return, I picked up one end of the ladder he’d purchased at a hardware store in Rome. He grabbed the other end and we jogged up the gravel driveway towards Signora’s villa.

In autumn, the terrain on the Italian coast was perpetually wet, but by the time anyone thought to scout around for footprints in the muddy earth, Raj and I would be long gone.





First Five Sentences #10

TITLE: Fractured Sky
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Rose plucked the last of the herbs her mother requested, guilt gnawing at her insides for a lie she hadn’t even told yet. She stood, tossing her purple and blonde plait back behind her shoulders, and tucking the sharp smelling herbs into her basket. She could not think of any circumstances in which the joy she was expected to feel for her two best friends could be plausible. Smiling and pretending to be happy for Hallie and Leilah would be expected.

Rather, smiling and actually being happy for them would be expected.

First Five Sentences #9

TITLE: TREBLED TIMES OF CECE SANTOS
GENRE: YA Realistic Fiction

It’s been ten months since I’d last heard from The Stranger. When she first arrived in Chelsea I thought God was smiling down on me. I’d been praying for a miracle, for someone, or something to get me out of the barrio, away from my overbearing Papi, and set me on my music career. The Stranger was someone I thought could finally share my song with, someone who would change my solo into a dazzling duet.

It didn’t happen that way.

First Five Sentences #8

TITLE: TANGLED UP IN BLUES
GENRE: Contemporary YA

When the bell rang, I saw dark red spikes and tasted metal. The first day of senior year, one more year, of bell after bell after bell. Lather, rinse, repeat on my hyperactive senses. I flinched, not much, but enough. A guy across the room noticed.

First Five Sentences #7

TITLE: THE SECRET IS MURDER
GENRE: Mystery

Who leaves bustling, exciting Chicago and moves to quiet, small town Ellwood City, a butt-bump away from Ohio in southwestern Pennsylvania? Who would do that? I was talking to my dog, Othello, trotting beside me on Lawrence Avenue past still dark retail stores. Retirees might return. But someone just out of college?

First Five Sentences #6

TITLE: The Park Kids
GENRE: MG Adventure

My name is Miranda, and I live in a park.

Not just any old park, mind you. The Park. The finest park this city's ever seen. Filled with gazebos and groves, and lakes, and a zoo even.

First Five Sentences #5

TITLE: The Chicken That Saved The World
GENRE: MG Mystery

I knew what my birthday present was the minute I saw it.

My mom handed it to me, all wrapped in bright lime and turquoise paper with a big turquoise bow. I shook it gently, sniffed it, pretended I had no clue. But it had to be, it just had to be!

I ripped it open in record time.



First Five Sentences #4

TITLE: The Sumerlin Curse
GENRE: YA Southern Gothic

Mama says the Lord punishes wicked boys who disobey their parents.

He will punish me if I cross the fence.

The fence circles the entire house. A wall of boards squeezed together, flat trees choking off my view of the outside world. Or the outside world’s view of me.

First Five Sentences #3

TITLE: The Amazing Adventures of Heroic Man's Brother
GENRE: Adult Superhero Fantasy

I popped open a can of Fizz Beer and took a good, long swig. The stuff was cheap as hell, and non-creatively-named to boot, but there wasn’t much more a twenty-four-year-old guy like me could afford with a crummy mailroom job. And I had to celebrate my impeccable achievement somehow.

Raw energy—along with the insufficient buzz and flavorless taste of the beer—bolted through me as I stared at the electricity grid model on my bedroom desk. After four years of nonstop, grueling, though at times invigorating work, my masterpiece was finally complete.

First Five Sentences #2

TITLE: Windfall
GENRE: Adult Contemporary Romance

The last thing Ian McGregor expected when he opened the door to his Manhattan high-rise apartment was a dinner party, particularly one he hadn’t been invited to.

But Kendra and nine guests were gathered around his candle-lit dining table, jazz played over his surround-sound speakers, and a stack of L’Oiseaux catering boxes towered six-high on the sideboard. Another scenario didn’t come to mind.

He loosening the red silk tie he’d knotted on more than fourteen hours ago as the conversation dissolved into a last few dry coughs.

“Hey, everyone.”

First Five Sentences #1

TITLE: Darkheart
GENRE: YA Adventure

If Jun had known she was going to spend the afternoon on a boat she would have worn a dress less susceptible to wind. Maybe something more structured, business-like. That way there would be no misconstruing this little get together today. As it was, she clutched her bright blue skirt to keep it blowing around her legs instead of upward as she followed her parents up the ramp and onto what Haman called a minship. In other words, a small house made to float on the water, that rocked enough to make you sick, with less space and amenities than an actual house.



Monday, January 26, 2015

Two Good Things For You

Good Thing Number One:

THIS WEEK, we are going to have a FIRST FIVE SENTENCES critique round.  Submissions will OPEN TOMORROW and entries will POST ON WEDNESDAY.

Focus of the critique:  Via Baker's Dozen submissions and my ongoing editing business, I have come across SO MANY OPENING PAGES that lack the basics of worldbuilding.  It's a subtle skill, indeed, to impart a sense of PLACE and TIME and SITUATION without creating a huge info-dump or throwing us into the middle of crazy action in an attempt to draw the reader in (hint: that doesn't work).  So let's see how well you do with creating a sense of PLACE and TIME and SITUATION in those first 5 sentences.

Now, DON'T PANIC.  Obviously you're not going to be able to disclose everything in the first 5 sentences.  There is no way you can let your reader know EVERYTHING IMPORTANT in such a short time.  THAT IS NOT THE POINT.  The point is, the reader is either going to feel grounded in your world right from the start, or he isn't.

Here are the submission guidelines:

  • Submissions will open at NOON EST on Tuesday, January 27.
  • The first 25 entries will be accepted.  Then the contest will close. (This is NOT a lottery!  It's first come, first served.)
  • Agented and unagented authors are welcomed to submit.
  • WIPs and finished manuscripts are both welcomed.
  • Please use the web form HERE to enter.
  • Submit your title, genre, and the first 5 sentences of your manuscript. Word limit is 125.
  • Don't try to squeeze in more than 5 sentences by creating run-on sentences.  I WILL KNOW.  And I will disqualify your entry. (No, really. I will.  NO RUN-ON SENTENCES!)
  • This critique is open to all genres except erotica and erotic romance. 
Critique will focus on whether your first 5 sentences "feel like" your genre, and whether they draw the reader into the story by providing an appropriate, clear setting.

If you have any questions, please post them below.

Good Thing Number Two:

Valentine's Day is coming!  So we're going to have a FIRST KISS SCENE critique during the week of February 9.  As in, a scene in which your characters pucker up for the first time.  Details will post next week.  I'm letting you know now so that you can search for a kiss (or almost-kiss) scene that you'd like some critique on.

Important:  If your scene is too gratuitous, I will not accept it.  This is at my own discretion.  MSFV is, and will remain, a PG13 blog (my youngest known contest participant was 13).  Thank you for understanding.

Okay!  Fire up those smooches.  Submission details next Monday!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Fricassee

Hello, Dear Hearts!

By now I'm sure you've heard of the shutting down of Egmont USA.  It's always sad to watch something disappear, as it were.  But I'm mentioning this in particular today because of Alison Weiss, who will be out of a job along with her colleagues, and who has been a positive force in my blog world for quite a while.

A few years ago, one of our then-teen writers conceived the idea for a teen writing blog, and Write On! was born.  Almost immediately, Alison stepped forward, offering to host a monthly "ask the editor" on the teens' bulletin board.  She was generous with her time and showed a real interest in speaking knowledge and wisdom into the hearts and minds of these young writers.  Now, there are a lot of good people in publishing, and there are many who understand what it means to either "give back" or "pay it forward".  But, truly, Alison's palpable desire to help these young writers--to be there to answer their questions and offer encouragement--was huge.  Editors are busy folks (as we all know).  That she would take the time to offer her expertise to these teens speaks highly of her.

In addition to this, Alison has been very supportive of MSFV over the years.  In 2013, she hounded stalked pleaded with me until I hosted The Adorable Editors Contest, which was a lot of fun.  (Plus we got to see ALL THE CUTENESS!)  And, of course, she was the illustrious judge for our Holiday Song Lyrics Contest last month, offering two delightful Egmont bags-'o-books as prizes.

Behind the scenes, she's been a quiet, positive voice, always offering her support and saying she'd do "anything" for the blog.  Right now, I wish I could do "anything" for her, but she doesn't really need me--because her talent and skill speak for themselves, and I know she'll find her Next Best Thing before we know it.

Alison:  Thanks for everything.  You know I'll be cheering for you as you move forward in your career.

To all the Egmont team:  Thank you for everything you have offered to the world of stories, and best wishes.

And, finally, to all the Egmont authors who will be looking for a new home:  Sometimes it feels like life has kicked us in the face.  May this NOT be a kick--may it be the inciting incident for the REAL plot.  Wishing you all happy landing places.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Our Third Baker's Dozen Success Story

It's true!  Mid-January, and I'm announcing the third success story from the 2014 Baker's Dozen  I'd call this a successful auction!  Here's the story, in the author's words:

Dear Authoress,

Thanks so much for running your Baker's Dozen contest once more. I am so pleased to report that I signed with Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Agency in December. She won my contemporary middle grade manuscript (#53 - Last Chance) in the contest and offered rep on the 7th day of her exclusive. My manuscript was already out with a number of other agents, who, when I informed them of Tamar's offer of rep, asked for a chance to consider it. After a nail-biting couple of weeks and a flurry of e-mails and phone calls (and a few FABULOUS rejections), I remained convinced by Tamar's passion for my characters that she was the agent for me. After a long writerly journey, it's lovely to begin 2015 in the next phase of my career.

Thank you again for all of your encouragement and the many opportunities you offer to new writers. You are the Agent Fairy Godmother.

All the best,

Juniper Ekman

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rachel Brooks's Secret Agent Winners!

Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were:

Thanks so much, Authoress, for organizing this event and inviting me to partake, as well as all the writers for putting your work out there! It’s not easy to have your work publicly critiqued, so bravo for taking that step.

I recognized quite a few entries from my query inbox or other contests, and it was great seeing your dedication to further honing your craft.

So without further delay, the prizes are…

RUNNERS UP:

#7 OVERSHADOWED

#13 WHEN DISASTER STRIKES

#30 LETTERS FROM ROME

Prize: Query, synopsis, and first 25 pages

WINNER:

#27 SUMMER’S ALMOST OVER

Prize: Query, synopsis, and first 100 pages

---

Congratulations, winners!  Please email me at facelesswords(at)gmail.com for submission instructions.

Secret Agent Unveiled: Rachel Brooks


Thanks and applause to our first Secret Agent of 2015: Rachel Brooks of the L. Perkins Agency!

BIO and SEEKING:

Before joining the L. Perkins Agency, Rachel worked as an agent apprentice to mentor Louise Fury. In addition to her industry training, Rachel has a business degree and also graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English from Texas A&M University-CC.

Rachel is actively building her client list.

She is excited about representing young adult fiction, as well as adult romance. In YA, she's looking for authentic voices and memorable characters. In romance, whether contemporary or historical, sweet or spicy, she loves swoon-worthy heroes and determined heroines.

She’s a fan of dual POVs, loves both print and ebooks, and has a soft spot for marketing savvy writers.


Winners forthcoming!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Fricassee

Sometimes, in order to be able to continue moving forward, we have to look backward.

Not in the sort of over-your-shoulder, counting-the-regrets sense, but rather in a "look how far I've come" sense.  And there's a big difference between the two.

When the journey is long and the outcome is ultimately not in our hands, it's easy to get stuck in the sameness of This Isn't Moving.  That, of course, can affect our creativity, our attitude, and even our self-perception.  Let's face it--working hard for many years without a tangible reward can often feel like idiocy at its finest.

And nobody wants to be an idiot.

So I sometimes make myself look back at my journey.  I still remember--vividly--the night I changed my mind about never being able to write a novel.  (My self-published book is a collection of anecdotal essays, so I had dubbed myself an "essayist" and claimed I could never write a novel.)  I was reading a book with such an insipid, passive protagonist that I found myself thinking, "I could write a better story than this."  So the next day, I started.

Just like that.

Of course, that First Novel sucked (like they all do).

Here is proof of the suckage:

The pantry opened on the right into a large kitchen, which sat directly behind the King’s Hall. Several cooks and servants were cowering there, hearing the frightening sounds from within the hall and not knowing what to do. As Nestar entered the kitchen, dressed as he was in chain mail and the Crest of Delthe, the servants cowered further. It dawned on Nestar that his Delthian armor afforded him a high rank in Nelgareth’s mounted army, and this fact might aid in his escape from the castle.

“What is the way out?” Nestar demanded.

“Through the courtyard to the stables, sir,” answered a rather stout woman, and she pointed a tremulous finger toward a door that was situated between the two large, stone ovens on either side of the outside wall.

“Get out quickly,” Nestar said breathlessly, as he ran, sword still drawn, toward the door. “There is great evil here.” In the doorway, he turned to face the frightened servants with real tenderness in his heart. “Your king is dead,” he said. “Save your lives while you can.”

(Now you know how much I love you, right?  I wouldn't share that schlock with just anyone!)

Anyway.  That was 2006.  NINE YEARS AGO.  That's a lot of waves on the shore, yes?  And my writing has become something I feel good about.  Something about which I can say with certainty, that, yes, I do write well.  Well enough, in fact, that an editor who read my most recent submission (and who, I think, would have liked to buy it, but her house wasn't behind it), wrote the following in her rejection letter:

I think Em's voice, as well as the character development, make this a stand-out in the genre--I particularly liked the inclusion of Kess's character, and (Authoress) does a masterful job balancing these literary elements with lots of action (and TWISTS!).

I've got the above quote printed out and hanging on the small bulletin board above my desk.  On really hard days, I can't look at it, because it feels too meaningless (as in, WHO CARES WHAT SHE THOUGHT; NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS!), but on most days, I read it and think, "Yes. I can do this writing thing.  I'm going to KEEP DOING this writing thing."

So, when you hit a rut, and you feel like you've been doing this writing thing forever, look back.  Read your first, wobbly scribblings.  Recall the highlights (your first request for a full manuscript; the first time you made a critique partner cry; the day you signed with your agent).  Then, after you've regained your perspective, LOOK FORWARD AGAIN.  Because that's the direction we've all got to face if we're going to meet the finish line.

Okay, then!  Have a fabulous weekend, and thanks for sharing this journey!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
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January Secret Agent #50

TITLE: ISLAND SHADOWS
GENRE: Realistic YA

I grew up believing in a love story. Now I know it’s a lie.

Ever since Mom and Dad broke their news to me, I knew I had to come to Silver Head. Everything about this place reminds me of childhood. And though part of me knows spending the summer at my grandparents’ cottage by the river probably won’t change anything, a small part of me hopes some distance from my parents will remind them who they were before I came along—just a couple of crazy art students who fell in love.

In the passenger seat of my grandfather’s ’88 Oldsmobile, I lean my head against the glass, tracing the curvy line of the river with my eyes until I grow dizzy. Since I arrived a few days ago, I can’t stop staring at the river. This particular shade of bluish-green doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Silver Head is a town nestled at the mouth of a great river that runs long and deep. Without binoculars, you can scarcely see across to the other side—which is Canada—and in between are thousands of islands sprouting up from an inland sea. Most of the islands are small, home to seagulls and river rats, while others are dense with trees and sharp with rock, holding up a summer house or two, or even a castle.

“Maybe we’ll do some fishing later, Tessy,” Gramps says, interrupting my river gazing.

“I’ll probably just draw,” I say, playing with a few strands of hair.



January Secret Agent #49

TITLE: The Portal
GENRE: Young Adult Fantasy

Once again, Quinn woke in the middle of the night and fought the urge to scream. She was hopelessly entangled in her bed sheets, drenched in sweat. She ripped from the confines of the linens and lunged to the window at the end of her bed. She was just in time to empty the contents of her stomach on the ground outside.

Even after all her time at the Facility, her life didn’t feel real. Her nightmares felt real but not the emptiness inside of her.

Quinn wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and glanced over her shoulder at the other girls tucked safely in their beds. Thankfully, they were still asleep.

We’re nothing, she thought sullenly, hanging her head.

Leaning against the window sill, Quinn let memories of her mother washed over her.

“Now Q,” her mother used to say. “It doesn’t matter where in this world you go. I’ll always be there for you. Just look at the moon and know I’m out there somewhere looking at the same one, thinking of you.”

Her fingers glided upwards to the worn crescent moon necklace hanging from her neck. The crystals of the moon’s surface had been polished to their fullest shine from her thumb travelling across them daily. The necklace had been a gift from her mother on her sixteenth birthday. It was the only thing she had left.

Her mother would never gaze at the moon anymore to think of her. No one would.


January Secret Agent #48

TITLE: FLINCH
GENRE: YA Thriller

We missed the mayhem by fifteen minutes.

The Jetta’s fuel light flashed on, so we stopped at the corner market to fuel up. While Dani wrestled with the ancient pump, forcing it to squeeze out a few gallons, I went inside for a pack of butts.

Everything was as usual. The resident witch slouched inside her cage of cigarette and candy racks and lottery machines reading a gossip magazine. She scowled when I asked for Marlboro Lights, reluctantly sliding the cardboard case across the worn Formica counter.

She held out her hand. “5.50.”

I gave her a five-dollar bill and two quarters along with a big smile, just to see her grimace in response.

Some people shouldn’t work retail, ya know?

At that point no one knew what had happened three miles up the road. The police scanner under the counter was quiet, burping out an occasional static hiss. Other customers carried six packs and deli sandwiches and tall styrofoam cups of burned coffee up to the counter, nodding at me as I took my purchase and pushed my way outside.

Ten minutes later, we came up over the rise by the Stedman Farm and saw the tableau laid out before us like a still from a horror movie.

First I noticed the police department’s tan SUV and Etch’s black Sirocco nose-kissing in a shallow turnout crowded by dense woods. A dented white pick-up sat slewed behind them, hood almost in the trees.

A man wearing an olive uniform lay face up in the dirt.


January Secret Agent #47

TITLE: The Last Stop
GENRE: Adult Romance

Lily paused, turning the key in her hand, half sad, half angry that it made its way there like a stowaway. She drew in a big breath as if keeping her world intact depended on it. How could such a small thing feel so heavy?

"I need some air," she muttered, tossing the offending object onto the table before walking out. It spun noisily for a moment in a last ditch effort to catch her attention.

At the intersection, early traffic performed their green-yellow-red dance while pedestrians waited their turn at the wings. Lily caught the eye of a driver who slowed down at the curb to make a right. A hint of panic shot through her when his gaze lingered a little too long. Did he know her? One of many failed blind dates? Impossible. This was a new town, she thought and pressed the walk button rapidly. While the car inched to make his turn in front of her, she saw another one that was coming just a little too fast. Instinct told her to run. A squeal of tire against pavement followed by a crash, sliced through the thick, sweet, morning air while the smell of rubber stung her nose. When she looked again, grey smoke had tarnished the otherwise blue-sky day. Lily made her way quickly back to the corner. Inside the car, the driver stirred head back, eyes closed, and the now deflated air bag hung limply off the wheel.

January Secret Agent #46

TITLE: Protectors
GENRE: YA Fantasy

His eyes resonated judgment and cruelty. Though the only judgment he should’ve been making was his black and white streaked hair. He looked more like a deformed skunk with chubby cheeks than the royal King of the Light Kingdom.

A scroll of aged parchment hung on the black cast iron gates, blocking the view of the gleaming Light Kingdom palace. And at the top of the parchment was the drawing of skunk man, bearing down at any of those who passed by with a nasty smirk curved on his lips.

Light Kingdom Decree Authorized by King Orion Zalen

  1. Royals and Protectors have permission to put to death anyone they deem appropriate
  2. Citizens have no power or authority
  3. Black-winged angels must die
Three little rules, a whole lot of confusion. Though the fantasizing imagery of a black-winged angel was quite amusing. I pictured a large, squawking feathery bird with a long beak, hopping on one straggly foot towards its prey.

It was a snickering thought. No wonder the King didn’t like black-winged angels. Birds particularly have a hunger for rodents.

The crowded streets stammered all around. Everyone’s head looked toward the ground, avoiding the massive white structure. It was as if they were avoiding the palace altogether. I would too if a citizen had no power and could be put to death in an instant. It was rather infuriating.

A startling, cracked voice rang my eardrums. “Step away from the gates!”



January Secret Agent #45

TITLE: The Rule of Equity
GENRE: New Adult

Growing up on the rez, the conscript had been shot, stabbed, and shoved into a barb wire fence a few times. He’d been attacked by animals. Nearly lost an arm to a bear. Pain had infinite facets, and he’d experienced more than his share.

But this was different.

This time, he allowed it to happen.

The conscript clenched his teeth as the blind old Indian slowly carved his flesh with an ancient copper knife. The blade tore through his skin like a jagged claw. The medicine man’s faint, warbling voice uttered unintelligible words from a long-lost language. His weathered fingers worked deliberately. The conscript’s pain would pass, but the scars—one above each breast—would not.

There was no rush. The sacred symbols had to be perfect, and perfection took time. Both men breathed deeply in a regular rhythm. The scent of woodland herbs, selected to heighten spiritual sensitivity, filled the smoky room, almost masking the odor of the freshly prepared animal skins that draped the conscript’s bare shoulders.

The knife was made of pure copper ore that had been mined over two thousand years ago on Isle Royale in upper Michigan. From there, it had been transported along waterways to Virginia, hammered into shape with stone tools, and passed down through the generations.

The old man removed the knife and traced the bloody groove with his thick fingernail. A perfect circle. Satisfied, he pinched the barbed deer bone at the center of the circle and plucked it out. The conscript flinched and cried out.

January Secret Agent #44

TITLE: CHASED
GENRE: YA Fantasy

According to her sister, Allie Davis was 3,586 years old. She only remembered the last seventeen of them, which was entirely her sister's fault, and no, Big Sis Tess was not the least bit sorry.

"You need a memory wipe sometimes," she said whenever Allie brought up the question. "Three or four hundred years of memories wears on you. You can't handle it."

On a normal day, Allie took whatever Tess said as an indisputable fact. But today was different. First off, the house was a sauna. A late spring heat wave had hit the Florida coastline with full force. Sweat ran in lines down Allie's face, and every breath felt like she was inhaling lead. Her best solution was to lay on the kitchen's cool tiled floor while Tess clanged things against the busted A/C in the living room.

"How come I can't handle all those memories and you can?" Allie moaned over the racket.

"Huh?" Another clang, followed by a thump and a clatter. "Ow! Blast this ineffectual human technology!"

Allie sat up. The room instantly felt ten degrees hotter, but she didn't care. She marched into the living room, which looked roughly like someone had beaten an army of robots to death in it. "I said," she began, stepping over a pile of wires, "why do you get to keep your memories and I don't?"

Tess looked up from a dismantled control box. She was working in shorts and a sports bra, exposing a good deal of her green, scaled skin.

January Secret Agent #43

TITLE: Rules of the Stars
GENRE: Adult Romance

I peer at my partner in crime over the frames of my massive sunglasses. “No one is gonna see us, Alex. Trust me. It’ll be in and out.”

The James Bond themed tune plays in the back of my mind, and I press my lips in a thin line. Alex’s gonna know I’m making fun of our escapade as soon as he notices the corner of my lips curving up.

“They’ll see us all right.” The sun’s golden brushwork breaks the monotonous blue tone in the sky. Alex takes a left and the shades of the palm trees along the road slide over the black hood of his car. “But they better not recognize us, or your sister will go psycho.” His face is partially hidden under his baseball cap, but I know a hint of mockery gleams in his honey eyes.

“Are you getting cold feet or somethin’?” I tilt my head to the side to catch his gaze. “This ain’t the first time we trick the paparazzi and sneak out of the house. Not even this month. Plus, no one is gonna think it’s us.” I gesture at his black jeans, black cotton shirt combo. The long sleeves cover his tattoos, including the one I designed for him: an anchor hanging from the south end of a compass. “Alejandro Reyes dressed in the same color from head to toe?” I huff. “Don’t think so.”

The corners of his lips curve up. “You look fantastic too, babe.”

January Secret Agent #42

TITLE: Time Irrelevant
GENRE: YA

My eighteenth birthday was approaching and I anticipated it with equal parts fear and excitement. In just four days I would finally be free. Most people my age see this milestone as a gateway to adulthood, freedom from the constraints of living under their parent’s roof and rules, and in some cases the opportunity to purchase a pack of Marlboros legally. None of these appealed to me. I had no parent’s rules to follow, no bad habits worthy of spending money on, and I considered myself an adult for as long as I could remember.

I am a product of the foster care system. I have been living with the DeLaneys for about three years. They’re not a bad couple, but they aren’t great either. They certainly aren’t parents. Sam is an electrician and the highlight of his life is coming home, reclining in his chair, and popping open a can of Budweiser. Carla doesn’t work. Carla doesn’t really do much of anything except watch Food Network, which is ironic since she never cooks.

There are some foster parents who foster because they love children. The DeLaneys foster because the state gives them money every month to “take care” of us. I am the oldest of four foster kids currently residing here, so naturally I do all the cooking for the younger ones, and help with homework. “Abigail, can you fix the little ones dinner? My back is killing me, and Sam is tired from working all day.”

January Secret Agent #41

TITLE: The Bootlegger's Bible
GENRE: YA Alternate History

One letter—that’s all it would take to destroy us. As my father returned from the mailbox, I knew that letter had arrived.

“Deliver this as soon as possible, Evelyn,” Papa said.

Reviewing the envelope, I caught sight of our boss’s seal—a shimmering golden C. It may not have been the draft letter we were expecting, but it was just as dangerous.

I prayed my father wanted me to bring it to anyone else but them. I’d even prefer it be for Mr. Mitchell. At least he was decent. As decent as an irritable speakeasy owner could be, I guess. But those dogs across town put his curt demeanor to shame. Stealing from under our noses and lying their mouths off. They were the nastiest bootlegging rival we could’ve come by. Even their polite nods scared me straight into the pews.

I ignored the sudden tapping of my foot. “Shouldn’t one of the boys do it?”

“No, that would give us away.” Papa peered over his shoulder to my older brothers sitting at the kitchen table, scrutinizing the latest newspaper headline about the war. “God has a plan, and He needs you to do this for us.”

The worried eyes behind my father’s glasses provided no comfort. “Are you sure this isn’t Capone’s plan?”

After a sharp hush, he covered my mouth with a calloused hand. “Take this to the Cohens.” I held back a gasp at the mention of their name.  “And whatever you do, don’t read it.” 




January Secret Agent #40

TITLE: The Strongest Chain
GENRE: Adult Romance

They were breaking the rules. Meredith Davies’ ten rules of the road said you do not stop at a gas station in a crappy part of town, you do not stop for gas late at night, and you do not let the tank get below a quarter to avoid breaking rules one and two. But here they were, at the Gas and Grab in freaking Chelsea on fumes at one AM. Kennedy looked out the window and watched her mom finish filling up. Meredith replaced the pump handle and then looked over to the little store attached to the station before opening the car door.

“Hey, I’m going inside to grab a pack.”

“Don’t you have any at home?” Kennedy asked, hoping that maybe she just forgot.

“No, my delightful daughter I do not. And Woody’s will be closed by now. I’m all fired up after hearing that lecture and I think I want to write tonight. That means I’m going to be ready to kill someone for a cigarette at about three AM. You don’t want that to be you.” She said with a smile and a wink while grabbing a twenty out of her wallet. Kennedy watched her mother walk confidently into the station on her three-inch heels with just a pashmina thrown casually over her thin white blouse and silk skirt as if the December night wasn’t freezing.

“You should quit smoking.” Kennedy said aloud to the empty air around her. “And put on a coat.”

January Secret Agent #39

TITLE: Sweet Jane
GENRE: edgy YA Contemporary

Being invisible was an art I perfected.

"It was more than being a wallflower," I said. "More than being picked last in gym class. More than shrinking like a violet. And for what it's worth, violets don't actually shrink. They are hiding in the leaves." Their petals so inconspicuous and dainty they almost disappear. That was me; quiet, small, and hidden in the crowd. Like I wasn't there at all. Just waiting to be seen.

Detective Hereford dragged a handkerchief across his sweaty forehead and banged it on the table between us. Coffee spilled over the side of his roll-up-the-brim to win cup from Tim Horton's. His eyebrows pinched together to form one big unibrow. He mopped up the spilled coffee with his hankie and set the cup down gently. The brim had been unrolled. The look on his face told me he hadn't won.

His partner, Detective Bryant, was a good foot shorter than him and didn't have any hair on top of his head, just two inches of wild grey curls circling around the back from ear to ear. They reminded me of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. I half wondered if they'd count paperclips and announce the letter of the day. Today's police investigation was brought to you by the letters J and C and the number 8.

There were eight of us still left in the game at the end. The rest went quietly to their graves. Metaphorically, of course. No one actually died. It just felt like it.

January Secret Agent #38

TITLE: JUST MY LUCK
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

“Are you sexually active, Stacy?”

The voice came from between my thighs. My feet rested on hard plastic stirrups and my a** hung halfway off the hard table.

“Wow, Dr. Thomas, what an ice breaker,” I said, raising my head slightly and catching a glimpse of the crown of her head.

She looked up. “It’s my job as your doctor to make sure you’re using protection.”

Protection…as if I had a need for protection. That cave hadn’t been explored in over two years and with no spelunkers on the horizon, protection was the last thing on my mind.

“Yeah, well, it’s been a while.” My head fell back onto the crunchy, paper-encased pillow and I gazed at the ceiling while she finished her exam.

She pushed back on the rolling stool and disposed of her gloves. “You can get dressed now. You should be receiving a postcard in the mail in a couple of weeks. If anything shows up as abnormal, we’ll have you come back.”

I scooted my bootie up on the table and pulled my feet out of the stirrups. “Thanks, Dr. Thomas.”

“You’re welcome, Stacy. Be careful out there.” She opened the door to the exam room and whooshed out into the hall.

How depressing. Now even my gynecologist knew I wasn’t seeing any action. Ever since The Dumping, I’d been licking my wounds, hiding out in my apartment and avoiding anything and everything that sported a penis.

January Secret Agent #37

TITLE: LE CIRQUE DU LITERATI
GENRE: YA Magical Realism

Grandmother’s book lies open on her nightstand to a passage more familiar to me than the ragged heart thrashing in my chest. So scared I can barely breathe, I stare at the words through a film of tears, trying to ignore the drops of blood on the page.

Some, frozen by inertia or caged by fear, choose to remain in their brown-boxes of routine, even if their worlds are hell. Even if their dreams perish on the tips of their tongues, preferring this to the unimaginable “what might be.”

I snap the book shut. The knife I don’t recall picking up falls without a sound, silenced by the million brass bells ringing in my ears. I slide the book into my bag. My fingers come away bloody, but no matter how much I wipe them the red stains will not go.

This house is no longer a home, but a prison drowning in poisonous wounds.

I need to hurry up and get gone.

Without looking back, I walk out of my grandmother’s door and close it gently behind me. I think of Artimus Finch, the character in the book. How he left everything that he loved behind when magic opened a window—a window rimmed in white shimmer, its frame hung midair, leading to a world without fear.

My heart and feet thump as I run down the staircase avoiding the photographs on the walls. Instead, I focus on Nikolai, and leaving this hell behind.

January Secret Agent #36

TITLE: Catalyst
GENRE: YA near future romantic thriller

When my father died a year ago, I never dreamed I’d be here, requesting a meeting with the Devil. And yet, here I am in the underground pool hall, selling my soul once again.

My bright red hair falls on the green felt of the pool table and offers up a festive contrast as I lean over and eye the setup. I’m confident I can hit the cue ball low enough to put a backspin on it and keep it from going into the pocket with the eight ball.

I exhale slowly, relaxing my stiff fingers before I give a nudge with the cue stick. I sink the shot. With a triumphant grin, I turn to confront the glaring dark eyes of Victor.

“Looks like I won,” I smirk. “Now you give me the meeting you promised.”

“How ‘bout another game?” he sneers, running his fingers through his greasy black hair.

“No. A deal’s a deal.” After all the time it took to track him down, I won’t let him slither from my grasp. Talking with the Devil’s informant is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Devil himself—the man with the answers.

The hairs at the base of my neck raise. I inhale quietly as my eyes shift around the smoke-filled room. Several other pairs of eyes watch my every move, their owners perched on barstools in the dark pool hall. Glancing around at the clientele, it’s clear I’m the minority with my fair skin and green eyes—not to mention my boobs.

January Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Black Reign
GENRE: Young Adult Dystopian/Action

Axel Schwartz began to stir as a powerful vibration shook his bed. The bed continued to shake as he took a startled breath and his eyes snapped open. He rolled on his stomach and commando crawled over the mountainous sheets and blankets until he reached the bed head. The instant he jammed his hand down on a raised square at the head of his bed, the vibrations stopped.

Above the bed, bright blue LED numbers silently flashed ‘0600’. He swung his feet onto the white porcelain tiled floor and pushed himself upright.

“Praise be to Szva, almighty god of everything!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

Axel shuffled to the far side of the perfectly white room where a golden skull about the height of a small child sat on an ornate wooden stand. Its eyes were red crystals that gleamed in the light that filtered through translucent wall sections. Like a dead man, Axel fell as prostrate in front of it.

After five full minutes Axel arose and paced on the cold, hard tiles towards a wall and pushed a panel. It retracted and slid aside revealing a glass box about a metre by a metre. It reached from floor to ceiling. There were two knobs on either side of a hollow cylinder that projected a short distance from the wall. He dropped his white sleeping garments to the floor, placed a pair of goggles on his eyes and stepped into the box.




January Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Sunchild
GENRE: YA Fantasy

“Yarrow, tell me about the sun.”

“Eh?” He looked up from his lap, the unwound strings of his fiddle sprawling like insect antennae into the air. “What for?”

“I want to hear about the way things used to be,” I said. “Before the Darkness.”

He returned to stringing the instrument, his grey brows furrowed. Across the cabin, beside the hearth, my best friend Linden paused in his mending to wave me on.

Once upon a time, there was something called the sun,” I prompted.

Yarrow raised one eyebrow. “You start at Gildenbrook in the morning. I think it’s probably time you went home to bed.”

Gildenbrook. My insides deflated. Black lace gowns and high-heeled boots for the rest of my life. A prison sentence.

“Why do I have to go?”

“Because you’re twelve, and that’s what happens when you turn twelve.”

“Linden’s fourteen and he doesn’t have to. I could be a gardener like him.”

Yarrow snorted. “I don’t expect your mother and father would be very pleased with a gardener for a daughter. They want you to become a proper young lady.” He pressed his lips together, as if trying to hide how much he doubted the likelihood of this possibility.

“Doesn’t it matter what I want?”

Once again he looked up from his fiddle, but something in his lined face now seemed a little sad. “No,” he said.

I tried again. “Tell me about the way things used to be, Yarrow.”

January Secret Agent #33

TITLE: Cathedral Park
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction Horror

I enter Cathedral Park from Edison Street, pull back my hoodie and let the mist frizz my hair. No one I care about will see it, anyway. Alone, at the top of a hill I watch the Willamette River churn beneath the St. Johns Bridge. It's another gloomy Sunday afternoon and the park is almost deserted, which suits me fine. I need to get out, and a damp, empty park is better than a damp, empty apartment.

The apartment is new, but smells like a storage unit. It’s filled with rented furniture and has the ambiance of a rehab facility. Not that I’ve ever been in one.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful. It’s the only place my mom could afford after the divorce, and I’m just glad we have a place to live. She had never worked before last month and to be honest, when we left Lake Oswego with a leased car and the smallest U-Haul it could drag, I thought there was a fair chance we were going to end up on the street.

Which is ironic, because just three months ago I was pretty pissed off because we spent Christmas at home instead of taking our usual family trip to Cabo. I'm not proud about that.

I wipe the rain off my face and take the sidewalk that runs down the middle of the park like a backbone.

January Secret Agent #32

TITLE: THE CITY OF MAGI
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

Every Mede knew the desert lark heralded misfortune. As Artunis reclined across two silk cushions, her lips curled with amusement at the mournful song drifting through her windows. She knew she shouldn't laugh at God, but a desert lark on her fifteenth name day? Honestly? It fit that her womanhood would begin with a curse, for Artunis's rotten fortune was nothing if not steadfast.

The brass latch slid out of its lock on the far side of Artunis's cedar doors, and she sat up to see who'd entered. Though Artunis had tried not to mock God, the Great Mazda certainly intended to have a laugh at her expense. Upon the scale of ill omens, the lark lost all significance when compared to Raika, Artunis's stepmother, who swept into the suite with a flurry of maids at her heels.

While her servants opened curtains and carried in platters of food, Raika lowered herself onto a cushion across the table from Artunis. Raika's silk gown gave all appearance of modesty while still revealing every curve as it settled about her frame—just the way she liked it.

"Good morning, Artunis." She even attempted a smile, but in fifteen years Raika had never managed to speak Artunis's name without her lip rising in contempt.

Artunis greeted her as she always did—warily. Reaching across the table, Raika patted Artunis's arm and gave that honeyed smile that brought a sparkle to her amber eyes and disarmed everyone but Artunis.

"I've brought you a gift," she said.

January Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Deadwood Gamble
GENRE: NA Romantic Adventure

Alice wondered if the perfect sorority girls at the next table would shut up if she dumped her drink on the table. Ugh, of all the days to forget her ear buds. If they gushed any more about their perfect sorority spring break plans, she was going to scream. Sighing, she stirred her iced mocha with a straw. That was stupid. She was irritated with herself, not with them. It wasn’t like she’d ever do anything like that anyway.

She read Vance’s email again, looking for any clues between the lines. He said he needed her help with a book. That sounded fishy. She jabbed at a piece of ice. How awkward would it be if he asked her out? She checked the time. He wouldn’t be late, she knew. For all his faults, he was punctual. Actually that was unfair. It wasn’t really his faults it was just, well, his Vanceness.

“Hey Alice, what’s up?” She looked up to see Andy Chen standing next to her table.

“Not much. How are you doing?” She closed the book she had been trying to read. Andy switched his backpack to his other shoulder.

“Just trying to get everything done. You got plans for break?” He adjusted his Chicago Bulls cap.

“No.” Alice shook her head. “I’ll probably just go home for a few days. How about you?”

“I’m going skiing with some guys out in Colorado.” He waved at someone across the room. Alice’s irritation grew. This was her third spring break as a college student.

January Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Letters From Rome
GENRE: Romance

I kept looking over at the handsome man across the Piazza. No, I thought to myself. He’s not just handsome. He’s exquisite. Tall, dark hair, dressed in jeans and a shirt that fit so perfectly. You could tell that he was fit, athletic. He also had that Italian masculinity, an air of confidence about him. I nudged my friend and pointed my head ever so slightly toward him.

“Is it my imagination or is he looking over at us?” I asked.

“He’s definitely checking you out.”

“You think? He is really gorgeous. Totally out of my league though.” I glanced over at him and he looked my way at the same time. We locked eyes and he smiled right at me. I shyly looked away. When I glanced over again, he appeared to be deep in conversation with two other guys. They started strolling in our direction.

Claire and I had just walked over from Via dei Coronari where we had bought gelato and we were relaxing in the sun in one of my favorite places, Piazza Navona in Rome. “Oh, my god. I have died and gone to heaven. I just love gelato. I cannot get enough of the stuff. How much do you think we have eaten this summer?” asked my friend, Claire.

“Probably enough to gain 20 pounds,” I said as she laughed. It was one of those magical days – sunny and warm, with a vibrant blue sky.

January Secret Agent #29

TITLE: TRUTH, LIE OR DARE
GENRE: YA contemporary

Taylor leans against my new red Mercedes in the student parking lot, her designer jeans practically painted across her a**. “Your mom has amazing taste. I got mine last year, but Daddy bought me the fully loaded model.”

I force a smile. We can’t really afford the car but when Mom has her mind set on getting me the same model of car Taylor drives for my birthday, she usually gets her way with my dad.

“So, are you going to get your tattoo today?” Peyton asks as she walks up to the car. “We all got ours on our seventeenth birthday. You’re the last one.”

I open my mouth to say that my mom would kill me if she found out, but Taylor lets out an audible sigh as she looks back at the school. “Where the hell is Morgan? I want to be back from Barrett before dark.”

Peyton frowns and tosses her Goldilocks waves around. “Why are we going to Barrett?” She purses her lips in a pretty pout—that move never fails on the type of guys she dates—and wrinkles her tiny nose. I always feel like the Incredible Hulk next to her.

Taylor rolls her eyes. “Because Barrett has a tattoo parlor that’ll do tattoos if you’re under age, remember?”

Peyton loses the pout. “I forgot, sorry, Taylor.”

Taylor drums her fingers against the side of the car with impatience. “I told her right after school, where the hell is she?”

January Secret Agent #28

TITLE: Found
GENRE: New Adult/Science Fiction

I stared down at the palms of my hands, saw them spread out in front of me, as gravel dug deep into my knees.  The dark, heavy night wrapped around me like a thick blanket; as a cool breeze whipped at my hair.  My body trembled as waves of power pricked at my skin, screaming to get out.  The energy coursing through me was magnificent, full of life and liberating.  It was also frightening and draining.  My mind spun out of control as I fought to make sense of what was happening to me.  I was changing.

Wasn’t this what I had wanted?  What my juvenile wishes had been filled with?  Desperation found its way to me again; causing my heart to ache.  I squeezed my eyes shut tight.  They burned.  I desperately wanted the cleansing moisture the human body naturally offered as a release.  But no tears came.  Could I cry now?  Was that something I could do?  Crying was such a human emotion.  Was I still human enough to experience the action?  The questions raced through my mind and ransacked my thoughts at a surprising speed, taking note of every one of my fantasies, involving a moment like this one.

How many times had I wished for this; to be different and extraordinary in some way? Hundreds?  Thousands, maybe?  How many movies had I watched?  How many books had I read?  How many fictional characters had I dreamed of being?  Suddenly I felt naïve and ignorant.


January Secret Agent #27

TITLE: SUMMER'S ALMOST OVER
GENRE: Romance

“Here you go.” Sophie smiled as she leaned out the window of her taco stand—The Sandy Tortilla—and handed an order of carne asada quesadillas to one half of a newlywed couple.

She’d been working the stand for enough summers to recognize the glow of the newly hitched. The way they looked at each other with moons in their eyes; how the men couldn’t stand more than two inches away from their wives; the tightness of the women’s bodies under their two-piece swimming suits.

Yes, Sophie had seen enough newlyweds to overdose on sweetness without even getting a taste of sugar. Her stomach lurched as she returned to the orders hanging above her grill.

Every couple reminded her that she was alone. Very recently single, in fact. She focused on tossing the chicken onto the flattop, slathering the cilantro spread on the tortilla, and crisping up the chips.

With her utmost concentration on her cooking, she didn’t have room to obsess over Mark.

“Chicken verde,” she called out the window, and a teenage girl stepped forward. At least she wasn’t in her mid-twenties with a wedding band on her finger.

Sophie glanced down at her left hand, where, until recently, she had worn a gold band with a single diamond on it. With a little imagination, she could see a tan line where the ring sat—because she had worn it for nine months.

Mark didn’t want to set a date, something that frustrated Sophie. She liked deadlines, and making lists, and meeting goals.

January Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Source
GENRE: NA Paranormal Romance

I should join a carnival, because I’m forever a freak.

“Hello? Earth to Lexi!” my best friend yips, turning down the music. “Your eyes are all wide, like someone caught doing something naughty and you haven’t said anything in like, five minutes. What are you thinking about?”

It takes me a second to grasp reality again. I’m in Taryn’s car, on the way to our school, West Palm Prep. With the top down on her blue convertible, the southern Florida air doesn’t feel damp and sticky like it usually does, the cool ocean breeze a nice change. It’s hot as it always is in June, though, so she cranks up the ac to combat it.

Even with the volume lowered, “So Good” by B.o.B. still blares. She’s looking at me while steering with a cup of iced coffee in one hand. Do I always wear a face when considering my visions of the future?

“Sorry, I was, uh, thinking about who will get all my stuff after you kill us. Can you at least pretend to watch the road?”

She snickers, curly red hair bouncing as we hit a speed bump. I tighten my seatbelt. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m an excellent driver. So, what has you all rosy and flustered? Daydreaming about Dell? Or better yet, the hot guys you’ll kiss on screen when you’re a big Hollywood star?”

I roll my eyes and sip my coffee to hide a smirk. “Please. I actually have to get an acting job, first.”

January Secret Agent #25

TITLE: BELIEVE
GENRE: Contemporary YA

I went numb when she told me. I heard the news several hours after they found my mom, collapsed on the floor of our one-bedroom apartment. I’d been sketching monochromatic syringes and hearts when Mrs. Henks, my favorite teacher at ARTT (Artistic Rehabilitation for Troubled Teens), delivered the whispered account: “The maintenance man found your mother. They’ve rushed her to the hospital. I’m sorry.”

I went numb. I didn’t cry, though. I knew how much Mom wanted to die. God knows I’d heard it from the source on an almost daily basis. In between the false highs, the vomit and the slaps, I’d heard. I just wished I knew what I’d done to make her hate me so much.

Mrs. Henks offered to drive, and when we arrived at the hospital, the harsh morning light exposed the smudges across the glass doors. Past the automated whoosh of the entrance, my legs shifted into autopilot. I stepped inside a nearby elevator, my charcoal-stained finger jabbing the number for the psych floor. Strangers, who’d pressed in around us, noted the floor I’d pushed and inched away. As if crazy was contagious. Only Mrs. Henks stayed close.

As the elevator doors slid shut, I lowered my eyes to the checkerboard pattern on my Vans, willing myself invisible to everyone, including myself. With each stop, I wanted to stay inside my protective box, riding it up and down to nowhere. But the elevator soon delivered us to the sixth floor.

January Secret Agent #24

TITLE: Morrow
GENRE: YA Romance

Repeating her family’s grocery list to herself, Imani paused just enough to blink before stepping through the sliding glass doors of the grocery store, thanked whatever Achiever invented air conditioning, and then commandeered the cleanest looking cart. Technically the shopping wasn’t for her family per se. The Andersons were definitely nice people, but in no way were they her biological relations because she didn’t have any. That’s how it went with Orphans.

Seventeen year old (possibly young, depending on who was looking) Imani was well-versed in their split-level society. At the tender age of five in her first Complex, the teachers had repeatedly stated the differences between them and other children, the kids who didn’t have to wear bracelets 24/7, should they have any questions. Indisputable Rule Number One: They were not, and would never be, Achievers.

Achievers had parents, lived in immaculate houses with said parents, and attended completely different schools which permitted them to have grand jobs. Orphans could only look upon such luxury. In second grade, when Imani raised her hand to ask exactly why that was, her teacher paused the class, looked her dead in the face, and repeated with unblinking, unemotional, stone-faced sincerity that was because she was not, and would never be, an Achiever. And that was that. She was smart enough never to ask the question again.

By ten, Imani knew that sometime in the next three years there was a chance she’d be assigned to an Achiever family who needed ‘assistance’.

January Secret Agent #23

TITLE: THE FIRST BOOK OF MOOJIE
GENRE: YA Magical Realism

There was a bundle of fur inside the fishing bucket. Inside the fur, the baby boy was bound up. The fur felt soft to him, as the bucket swung next to footsteps. His breath was warm and moist against his face. He could see the hole of light above him and the man’s hand grasping the bucket handle. Between footsteps, he could also see the trees and blue sky. The footsteps were moving fast and the hand was locked on the handle and the baby was bound up inside the fur. There was nothing he could do to stop the footsteps. He was thirteen weeks old and being taken somewhere. Inside the furry cave, his body felt hot and cramped. He stared up at the hole of light, looking outward at the manifestation of forces too dazzling to understand—seeing—and not yet understanding, the mysteries that lay beyond. In his mind, there was but one thing to do. Passing through the trees, he reached toward the hole of light, programmed by nature since the dawn of time, to verge upon, to clutch, to lean toward, something—neurons seeking neurons—life itself seeking a connection.

His name was Moojie. At least, that was the word smudged in ash across his forehead.

When Mother Teagardin first saw him, she thought he was a fish. Someone had beaten on the chapel door of San Miguel de las Gaviotas before leaving the covered bucket on the landing.

January Secret Agent #22

TITLE: WINTER ON BRIMSTONE HILL
GENRE: YA LGBT Contemporary

I roll over to check if the milk is frozen. Neatly stacked in three crates of glass bottles, it’s solid. That probably means the apples and potatoes are frozen, too.

The omen of a bad day.

I could pray that the bottles won’t break as my bedroom warms with daylight. I could pray, but I won’t. If it’s going to get cold, it’s going to get cold, and all things—milk among them—freeze. There’s a life lesson for you.

My folded clothes lay on my nightstand, and I pull them into the warmth of the sleeping bag.

I am the salamander that once lived in the cellar. Joseph and I used to amuse ourselves by enticing it with earth- or mealworms. It would shoot from under the stone long enough to bite down before retreating. The salamander couldn’t guess we weren’t going to hurt it. It didn’t need to move fast, but I do. Otherwise, my body heat will escape. The chill will never leave me then.

In middle school, I slept in my clothes, the extra layer providing what the wood stove in the dining room can’t. But it took only one overheard conversation during that petrifying first week of high school before I stopped.

“Did you see Sarah’s shirt? It’s so wrinkly it looks like she slept in it.”

That was the last time I did.

January Secret Agent #21

TITLE: SET IN STONE
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Rule number one for surviving my mother’s love life? Always keep your eyes on the horizon. That’s why, instead of putting my things away in my new bedroom, I’m alternating between writing an English essay that’s not due for two weeks and obsessively refreshing the admission status page on KU’s website. Good grades and a college two and a half hours away from here. That’s what’s on my horizon right now.

“Amber,” a voice says, and I look up to see Mom standing in my doorway. She raises an eyebrow and looks from me to Buffy, my German shepherd, who is stretched out next to me on the bed.

“What?”

“You know what.”

I sigh. Kevin, mom’s new boyfriend and the owner of this house and this bed, is not a pet person. He doesn’t want Buffy on the furniture. Mom had to know I’d break this rule, but I don’t think she expected it on move in day. “Buffy, off.”

Buffy shoots me a hurt look and slinks off the bed.

“Thank you,” Mom says, her gaze flickering between me and Buffy and all of my unopened boxes. “Are you taking a little break?”

“Uh, yeah.” I dig my toes under the pillows at the head of the bed and nod at my laptop. “Had to do some homework. I put all my clothes away, though.” I don’t mention that other than that and Buffy’s food and water bowls, I haven’t touched a thing.

January Secret Agent #20

TITLE: A Shot At Forever
GENRE: Contemporary Adult Romance

Rules. Sheridan Ward lived her life by three. It was because of those rules that she sat in this nameless bar on another Thursday night somewhere in West Texas.

She scanned the honkytonk and sighed, feeling as worn down as the sole of a rancher’s boot. She liked rules. They helped her make her way alone in this crazy world. Everything worked out in the end if you followed the rules. That’s what Old Jim had taught her. And he’d been right. Mostly.

Only now they’d become more like a cage that locked her away from the life she really wanted. A life that would soon be within her reach.

She tamped down the ridiculous flare of hope that lit inside her at the thought and concentrated on the real reason she was here.

Rule number one: Know the game better than anyone at your table.

She flicked a glance at the crowded bar. After an hour casing the place, she was damn sure she knew the game better than anyone in here.

Besides, even though the honkytonk was jumping like a grasshopper in a chicken coop, she’d snagged the third stool at the far end of the bar. Her lucky spot no matter what dive she walked into. She’d take luck anywhere she could find it. Lord knew it was the one thing her rules couldn’t counteract.

She picked up her beer and took a long swallow then placed it back on the coaster—right in the center, with the label facing her.

January Secret Agent #19

TITLE: A Fool's Errand
GENRE: YA/Fantasy

The shadow of night had not yet crept away when five year old Dara Douglas woke.

“Mommy,” she called. The glow of the tiny carousel lamp was not enough to penetrate the dark corners of her room and she hugged Mr. Gruffy closer to her.

When no one came she pulled back the covers and climbed out of bed. Her thin cotton nightie with the image of Josie and the Pussy Cats had become cracked and peeled, the result of one too many washings and offered little warmth against the chill of early April in New England. Little feet met cold floor causing her to shiver. She slid into her mules, a funny name for pink fuzzy slippers, and headed into the hall relishing the scuffing sound they made on the hardwood floor. Passing the bathroom she stopped just outside her parents’ room. Mr. Gruffy hung from one small hand, the other gripped the knob. The door was partway open and she stepped inside the room.

“Where’s Mommy?” Dara asked rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Her big brother Dash sat alone on their parents’ bed.

“She had to go out for a while.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“When’s she coming back?”

Dash looked away for a moment then pressed his hands to his forehead.

Just like Daddy does when he gets a headache or when Mommy asks if he remembered to pay Mr. Martinelli the rent. Or like when the angry man came to the house last week.

“Well?” she shrugged.

January Secret Agent #18

TITLE: Blood and Bones
GENRE: YA Thriller

It was an obscenely hot summer morning when I was sentenced to die.

After endless months of paralyzing headaches, occasional memory loss, and countless doctors prescribing useless migraine prescriptions, I was certain I was at the conclusion of my life’s story. My father, who wasn’t ready to read my final chapter just yet, took me to see a renowned neurosurgeon at Saint Stephen’s Hospital. A few moments through the pulsating tunnel of a M.R.I. illuminated what he was in search of and allowed him to diagnose my troubles with two little words:

Brain tumor.

My father’s horror-stricken face mirrored my own internal struggle with the news. My selfish, younger sister snatched a box of cheap tissues from the doctor’s desk and dabbed away the crocodile tears that streaked her flawlessly made-up face. I tried to remember how to breathe when I looked into the patient face of the man who claimed he could rescue me.

And somewhere far away from where I sat, I pictured my mother smiling at the imaginary butterflies that often flitted around her wild red hair in the community room of the mental facility she had been living for nearly two years.

In spite of everyone’s dread about my test results, Dr. Taylor had other ideas about my future.

January Secret Agent #17

TITLE: The Secrets We Keep
GENRE: YA mystery/thriller

Apparently, marriage must suck.

That’s the only logical conclusion I can come to right now.

It’s going to be another long night. So far, he’s criticized her career, her cooking, and her hair. What’s next? The way she breathes? They’ve been at it since ten and it’s now way past midnight. Tonight’s fight between my mother and Neal is shaping up to be epic.

You would think I’d be used to it by now, since it happens almost every night. Well, except for the nights my stepfather doesn’t bother to come home until three or four in the morning.

His surly voice carries from their bedroom next door. I catch snippets here and there – his words sound more venomous than usual, even for him.

“–nothing but a cold, empty shrew,” he hisses.

“You never give me a chance,” my mother says, pitifully trying to appease him. “Please calm down…you’re going to wake Lyndsay.”

Too late for that.

Neal’s answer comes a second later, in the form of a book or a shoe that smacks the other side of the wall above my head with a loud thwack. I jolt as if struck.

“Great,” I snarl through gritted teeth, “now, he’s throwing things.”

My stomach twists. I clench my pillow until my hand cramps, wishing these walls weren’t so damned thin, wishing I could get some sleep, most of all, wishing he would stop torturing her. Why does he treat her this way? She doesn’t deserve it.

Wham!

Must’ve been a drawer this time.



January Secret Agent #16

TITLE: Minds and Manors
GENRE: YA Fantasy

“Hey kid, watch it!”

I jump back in time to avoid being trampled by a horse-pulled wagon and its crazed driver. Cold, dark water sprays me, staining my clothes. I shoot a death glare at the back of the driver’s head as he, and his wagon, disappear around a corner. That man has it out for me.

I sigh. I really should’ve stayed in bed today. My stomach growls in protest of the thought, reminding me why I’m out here in the first place - food and rent aren’t free – and the only place for me to get a job is the Fortune Hunters Bureau. I run my fingers through my now ruined hair and step out on to the uneven cobblestone street.

Leaves dance by, a cold wind ushering them along, serve as a reminder of the changing seasons. The autumnal sky is gray, much like everything else around here. The people, the buildings, even the mid-day sun – everything is monochromatic. This is proving to be yet another boring day. I stumble along the streets of Lummava, learning just how stiff I am from last night. I know one thing for sure – Zev Porter will never do that again.

The life of a Fortune Hunter isn’t easy, and last night’s job was a reminder of that. Working late is a nightmare and that was humiliating. The icy wind picks up, further chilling the barren streets. This place is always so cold and desolate.


January Secret Agent #15

TITLE: The Jewel Thieves
GENRE: YA Contemporary

My brother Raj put his espresso down with a sharp click against the saucer. “Remind me why we’re in Italy, Sasha?” He shot me his evil grin. Then he stole my biscotti.

I kicked Raj’s ankle with the pointed toe of my high-heeled shoe. We were at a café in Rome, next to the colossal Bank of Italy, and not far from the city’s largest university. A row of palm trees hid our table from the bank’s security cameras. Drivers raced through the cobblestone streets, filling the air with echoes of blaring car horns. While Raj had been watching the bank, I’d been subtly checking out a supercute college guy at the next table. Adorable Scottish accent. Lovely golden-red hair. A smile to die for and dimples.

But unfortunately, supercute college guys were not the reason Raj and I happened to be in Italy.

“The limo’s here,” Raj whispered in French. All traces of humor vanished from his face.

From beneath my eyelashes I watched a black limousine cruise towards the no-parking zone in front of the bank and stop. Moments later a woman with silver-grey hair emerged from the back. The diamonds around her neck caught the sunlight and sparkled.

“That’s Isabella D’Agnelli,” someone whispered.

A waitress took a picture with her phone.

“She’s still so beautiful,” I said. I’d seen all Signora D'Agnelli’s movies a million times.

Raj fixed his dark eyes on me.

“What?” I put my sunglasses on. “I’m completely detached.”

January Secret Agent #14

TITLE: YOU HAVE HIS EYES
GENRE: Contemporary YA

Monday, June 7

I wonder what it would feel like to pluck out my eye. It’s got to be pretty simple. I’d just have to wedge this pen far enough into my eye socket to pry the eye out. There would be a lot of suction, I’m sure. Something behind it would have to rip.

It wouldn’t accomplish anything. I know that. And I’m sure it would hurt like hell. It’s just easier to think about using my pen for that than writing this.

But I don’t have a choice. I mean, that’s why I picked up the pen in the first place. To tell you this.

I’m pregnant. With you.

No one with any medical knowledge has confirmed it yet. But I doubt seven tests of two different brands can be wrong. I’m in my room now, but they’re still beside me. On my desk. Piled like a stack of unused pens from the school year. I’ll have to throw them away tomorrow in the dumpster behind the coffee shop where I work so my parents don’t find them.

I’m supposed to be celebrating the end of junior year, not taking pregnancy tests. Not being pregnant.

I can’t be pregnant. If being late to the dinner table is unacceptable, I don’t know what my parents would call this.

All I know is you’re inside of me. Maybe just the size of a pea. But you’re inside of me.

And I don’t know what to do with you.

January Secret Agent #13

TITLE: When Disaster Strikes
GENRE: NA Contemporary Romance

Out of all the things parents could force you into—stealing, murdering, eating liver—going on a cruise wasn’t really one of the worst. I tried to remind myself of that as I sat in our Costa Concordia stateroom, fisting the bedcovers in my fingers.

I could see the shadows that were my parents rushing around the large room, opening drawers, closing them. From what I had gathered from my parents’ reaction and my own minimal vision, the ocean view room was quite a sight. Besides the two beds, there was also a couch, coffee table, dresser and TV.

A weight settled beside me on the bed and I heard the zipper of the suitcase as my dad pulled it open. Yes, even blind I knew it was my dad.

If there’s one misconception about being legally blind, it’s that you can’t see anything. Though I can’t make out features or details at all, I can usually see shadows in the general shapes of things. Plus, you kind of get to know your parents’ presence after awhile. My nonna calls it a sixth sense—the way my other senses are supposedly heightened because of my blindness.

I don’t know if she’s right, though. Which is sad, really. Because it means after two years of being blind I can no longer remember what it feels like not to be.

“Did you bring my blue dress shirt?” my dad called to my mom.

“Yes, it’s in the other suitcase.”

January Secret Agent #12

TITLE: BEFORE ME RUN
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

Prologue

— Southeast Missouri, 1842 —

Poteet swept drooping branches aside as she marched toward the sound of a squalling newborn. Across a small clearing in the dense forest, the infant lay naked and twitching on a slab of granite, her wet blanket slapping in the wind and rain.

Poteet’s jaw tightened. Rex Stafford had lost his mind, abandoning his only child like that. It could only mean one thing.

Isabelle did not survive the birth.

Beyond the rock where the baby lay, a trio of wolves emerged from the trees, their eyes fixed on the infant. They crept forward, rumbling with low, hungry growls.

Sprinting toward the child, Poteet pulled an arrow from the quiver on her back and snapped it into place. One smooth motion, never breaking stride. “HEAAAHH!”

Two of the wolves glanced her way, then darted for cover in the nearby trees. But their leader continued bounding forward.

“Romus! Stop!”

Ignoring her, he sprang toward the child, his fangs bared.

Her arrow struck him in mid-air. It was perfectly aimed, piercing him clean in the heart. At least she could give him that.

He fell with a thud, his pointed teeth landing on the baby's exposed belly. The blow knocked the wind out of her, silencing her cries.

A cloudy vapor whooshed from the wolf’s slack jaws at precisely the moment the newborn recovered from her shock with an enormous gasp. In so doing, she inhaled the wolf’s final breath.

January Secret Agent #11

TITLE: Our Father who art in high school
GENRE: Quirky Young Adult

A middle-aged woman leans against the counter staring at a crossword puzzle. She taps her pencil against the empty squares as I let out a polite cough announcing my arrival. It does no good, she’s busy trying to find a ten-letter word meaning: to wish good health.

“Gesundheit,” I say hoping to speed things along.

“Well bless your little pea picking heart,” She fills in the letters in the squares of her crossword puzzle. “How may I help you?” She has such a pleasant voice.

“I’m new here, my name is Maurice Almighty.” Her smile quickly turns to a frown.

“We have been expecting you.” Her tone turns rude as if she turned a switch. It could only mean one thing; my permanent record beat me here.

The woman lifts horned rimmed glasses from her face and stares at me with the naked eye.

“Mr. Allen, He is here,” she speaks into the intercom. She doesn’t say my name, just He with a capital H and that says it all.

“Have a seat.” She points her pencil towards a wooden bench.

I wiggle on the uncomfortable bench, which makes my left butt cheek go numb. She does not take her eyes off me for a second and doesn’t attempt to conceal her distrust. Let off a few plagues in school and that s*** follows you, trust me.

January Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Shadowwalkers
GENRE: Paranormal romance (New Adult, clean)

Anna Mackenzie was twenty-one years old. She was, in fact, twenty-one years old that day. Therefore, it, made perfect sense that she would be rather smug as she walked into the Starlight Club on M Street.

Being able to drink legally was a milestone, after all. She was finally grown up. Those older would have disagreed, but that was the focus of her thoughts as she walked to the bar and ordered a lager. Mixed drinks were insanely expensive, far beyond a college student's budget. Beer, she could afford.

She leaned against the bar, surveying the crowd, her sandy hair flowing over her shoulders. To start with, nobody paid her a second glance. Not here, not in a room full of fit young men and beautiful women.

That did not, however, last long. The man who came up with her had not been drinking beer. His breath smelled of something stronger. "Hey, girl," he said, sounding not at all like the song.

"Hey," she said, warily, assessing him. No, she did not want to be picked up by this guy. Or any guy, really. After college would be time enough. Time enough to date and mate and have babies. Right now, she just wanted the music and the dancing.

"Want to dance?" he asked.

She might have said yes, but as he spoke, his hand drifted onto her thigh. Gently, but firmly, she removed it. "Not right now."

"Oh, come on, what else are you here for?"



January Secret Agent #9

TITLE: Purple Shadows
GENRE: NA Suspense

A flash of white slid under her door, sweeping across the dorm room tile before settling near her desk. Megyn wrapped the towel around her dripping hair and froze.

A note.

She closed her bathrobe even tighter before picking up the folded paper. A drop of water from her hair fell onto the initials written on the front, feathering the black ink. The cardstock was crisp with a linen finish, hardly the type of stationary college students used. Besides, anyone she knew would have sent her a text.

Unfolding it, she read the handwritten lines.

M.Q.,

Be careful. Watch your back.

-a friend

Goose bumps prickled her skin. She raced to the peephole but no one was there. She cracked the door. Footsteps echoed down the concrete stairwell.

            “Hold on! Who are you?” The rush of the updraft as someone left the dorm was her answer. Three flights below, the metal door slammed. If she hadn’t been barefoot, she would’ve run downstairs.

Hurrying back into her room, she yanked the curtains aside. Growing puddles from the thunderstorm converged on the worn brick walkways below, otherwise the quad was empty. As empty as her dorm. As empty as the university. After locking the deadbolt, she leaned against the door.

She held the note by the edges, careful not to smudge the ink, and reread it.

Wait…

           This was exactly the kind of prank Kent would pull.







January Secret Agent #8

TITLE: Unwritten
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Footsteps in my dream tell me Nadu is coming. The sound of her feet on the hard wooden floor echoes in my head. I ignore it, fighting for a toehold in the story my brain has given me while I’ve been sleeping.

“Elsi, wake up.”

The words collide with my dream just as warm hands grip my shoulders, startling me awake.

“Elsi.”

My dream scatters, and I force my eyes open. Nadu stands over me, her grey hair barely visible in the dark room. I rise up on my elbows and glance out the window. Darkness presses through the glass. There’s no telling how late it is.

“The Council needs you,” Nadu says.

I roll my eyes. Of course they do. Tossing back the covers, I stand and thrust my legs into the pants Nadu hands me. I throw my nightgown on my bed and pull on my tunic. Nadu doesn’t have to tell me to hurry like she does the others. I’m old enough to know we don’t have the privilege of extra time. And besides that, the disapproving glare and extra chores I suffered from Nadu the one time I didn’t move fast enough have kept me from lingering every since.

I glance down the length of the room all ten female heralds share. The rest are still sleeping. There are eleven boys in the room across the hall. Twenty other people they could send, but instead this is my third interrupted night of sleep in the past few weeks.