Friday, April 19, 2019

Friday Fricassee: In Which I Receive My STORMRISE Galleys

You know I love you if I'm letting you see the ultimate dorkiness and unfettered joy captured in this video.

But I want to share this with you. You, who have walked with me through this long journey. (Some of you for a very, very long time!)

Here it is: My first glimpse at the STORMRISE galleys that arrived a short while ago on my doorstep.


There are pretty much no words to describe how this feels!

(Also, yes, I will be hosting a giveaway VERY SOON!)


Check out my INSTAGRAM STORY for more photos! And have a glorious weekend!




Monday, April 8, 2019

All The Shiny Winners!

Here they are, in Jessica's own words:


My picks:

Thunder Girls (#40). This one really stood out to me in execution of writing as well as story setup, so I’m calling it my #1 pick. The Anatomy of a Taut-line Hitch (#50). While the premise behind this one may not be the most unique, but I thought was written well, and I was quite drawn to the symbolism of the knot tying.

The Summer of Miracle Maude (#47). Even though I don’t generally like dialogue for the opening line, this one was so easy to get into and immediately had voice and an internal conflict brought on by external circumstances. Memorable, engrossing, and entertaining. All good things to be. :)

Stoking Hope (#33). This one stuck with me. I want to know how the woman got into the marriage and how she’s going to survive all the changes. Women’s fiction should relate back to the reader’s life, too, and the immigrant story connecting with today just rang with all sorts of possibilities for me.

Yours in the Light (#10). I’m not certain that the structure stays so unique throughout, and the mention of writing within writing isn’t always a favorite of mine, but the informal voice of this one felt authentic, and I’m nervous that the written therapy trope might fall apart if scrutinized for confidentiality concerns… BUT, I really liked the structure and the voice, so it stood out.

Honorable Mentions:

I want to mention All the Time in the World (#12) and Fatal Errors (#28), because while neither one really grabbed me as favorites as I was doing the critiques, both of them pulled me back into the same voice and story line when I was making my top five picks as if I hadn’t stopped reading the first time. I still love the idea of the engineer making Mars rovers in her basement and a woman fired from a boss for the very thing her boss directed her to do. I just want to know more about both of these and have that “gut feeling” there’s more here.

THE PRIZES:

For 1-5, I’d like to request full manuscripts attached in an email to submissions@GoldenWheatLiterary.com, subject line: Secret Agent Contest Top 5.

For honorable mentions and anyone who I mentioned I’d like to keep reading in the comments, I’d welcome a submission, including a query letter, a complete synopsis, and the first five chapters pasted in an email to submisisons@GoldenWheatLiterary.com, subject line: Secret Agent Contest.

--
Congratulations, everyone! Winners, please be sure to follow the submission guidelines posted above. Hooray for another successful round!

Secret Agent Unveiled: JESSICA SCHMEIDLER



A huge round of applause (plus extra hugs for having to deal with technical issues) for our Secret Agent Contest, Jessica Schmeidler of Golden Wheat Literary!


BIO:

Jessica is the founding literary agent of Golden Wheat Literary. She holds B.A.s in Political Science (Pre-law) and English (Literature), as well as a Paralegal Certificate, and enjoys marrying the two together as a full-time literary agent. Jessica lives in Kansas on her late 1800s homestead, where she still ghostwrites, edits, and reads all the books. Jessica is currently focused on learning how to be a publicist for her authors in addition to being an editorial literary agent.

WHAT SHE'S LOOKING FOR:

Jessica has eclectic tastes, so she’s open to considering most any project, but more specifically, she’s hoping for general mainstream adult fiction, children’s or adult literary fiction, suspense/thrillers, and inspirational/motivational nonfiction (especially anything with Keto, running, or modern Victory gardens).

Winners forthcoming!


Friday, April 5, 2019

Friday Fricassee

I'm enjoying the enthusiasm rolling through our Secret Agent Contest. Hooray for the energy and dedication of writers everywhere! We are a unique and supportive tribe.

Keep the critiques coming! And if you have an entry in this contest, please remember to critique a minimum of 5 of your colleagues' entries. Our Secret Agent will be unveiled on Monday--and winners will be announced!

My hope is to host at least one more Secret Agent Contest this year. I'll do my best. Truth be told, I'm feeling the greenness behind my ears with this Debut Author thing. Events and deadlines and guest blogs and...I'll be learning to juggle it all.

(Perhaps "manage" is a better word. "Juggle" makes it sound like it could all go horribly wrong if I drop one little ball.)




A few days ago, I was introduced to my publicity manager. She's enthusiastic and organized and OH MY GOODNESS, I'm still getting my head around the fact that she is out there pitching me and my book. I'm still at the point where this stuff takes my breath away for a little bit.

I told her I could draw a good crowd in my home town, and offered a month when I'd like to do that, and she said...sure! And I keep thinking, really? She's going to set that up for me because I asked? And I'm amazed and humbled and thankful and so excited.

Three of my English teachers still live in that general area. I can't even describe what it will feel like to have them at an author event for my debut novel.

I don't know. I might sob my way through the whole thing.

I was thrilled earlier this week to discover that the cover of STORMRISE has finally made its way to Amazon and all the other online booksellers. Which gives me something else to stare at. (It's so silly, but there's no use denying it. I stare ALL THE TIME. Often with a goofy smile on my face.)


(STORMRISE is now available for preorder.)


Aside from all the STORMRISE launch prep, I'm continuing to work on NEW NOVEL, which I need to get to my editor in May. My goal is to send it before dear hubby and I leave for our trip to--wait for it--London.

London!

Yes, I'm the girl who has never been across the ocean. Whose only trip outside the USA was to Canada, back in the no-passport-needed days. Eric and I are COMPLETE ANGLOPHILES, and this is the vacation of our dreams. We've wanted to do this for so long, and haven't been able to. We even have a MATCHING LUGGAGE SET (which Eric doesn't seem particularly excited about).

And that's me in a cute, little nutshell. This weekend I'll be singing with the Nashville Symphony Chorus in a performance of Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony. It's been a tiring week (performance weeks always are), and the music is so very difficult--but singing with this group is an intense happy place for me. Even when the music about kills me.

Probably I'll take a nap soon. (Who came up with the idea of starting performances at 8:00 PM, anyway?)

Oh, and I've finally created a Facebook Page, so please come "like" me!



Have a wonderful weekend, and I'll see you Monday!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

Thanks for participating! Please remember that WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY MATTERS. If you've never had the nerve to leave feedback for another writer--TODAY IS YOUR DAY! :)

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

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

Secret Agent #50

TITLE: THE ANATOMY OF A TAUT-LINE HITCH
GENRE: MG Contemporary

1.
SQUARE KNOT
A common double knot. Most often
used to join the ends of two disconnected lines. 


The Complete Book of Knots sits open in my lap, flapping in the steamy wind that gushes in through the car window. I wrap a length of rope around my fingers. Tight—until the tips turn white and start to go numb. Then I slump onto the back seat and let go.

I should know by now that numbness doesn’t solve anything.

Dad glances at me in the rearview mirror, his eyebrows thick and dark like two furry caterpillars. “How you doing back there, Petra?” he asks.

How does he think I’m doing? Three weeks ago he and Mom started their “trial separation”—whatever that means—and just when I thought Amber and I would finally get some alone time with him I find out my ex-best friend and her mother are crashing our vacation. Does he want me to act like we’re headed to Disney World?

“Just wanted to check on you,” he tries again. “You’re so quiet.”

“That’s ‘cause I’ve got nothing to say.” No one ever asked me if I cared if the O’Leary’s came.
Upfront, Amber takes a break from texting and turns around, eyeing me carefully. She knows why I’m not talking. Her hair is pulled up in a messy bun, and her perfectly pedicured feet are perched on the dashboard. She’s sitting where Mom usually sits. Or used to.

Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Becca's War
GENRE: MG Historical fiction

         Another train sped into Kensington Station, spewing black smoke and soot everywhere. Horses shrieked as the huge iron engine squealed to a stop. Papa said these trains could go as fast as thirty miles an hour. My head spun at the thought of going that fast. I brushed soot off my cloak and glanced around at the dozens of people hurrying to or from the train that had just stopped. They all seemed to be in as much of a hurry as the train. Where were they all going in such a hurry? For a moment, I was jealous that I wasn’t going someplace with them. Even if it meant going that fast on one of the trains nearby. Several people jostled me as they rushed past. I almost lost my balance, but felt a hand on my elbow to steady me.

           “Sorry, Miss.” I looked up at a tall young man, a few years older than me, who grinned and doffed his hat.

            I frowned at him, but stopped myself. I nodded and straightened my own hat, which he had knocked astray by his carelessness. At least he’d apologized, I thought as he joined the crowd rushing around the station. I pulled my cloak about me to ward off the cold winter wind that was picking up and turned back to see that Papa and Gramps were still in the same argument.

          "There is going to be a war."

Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Love/Sick
GENRE: Adult women's fiction

My eyes have special powers. They see things others can’t. My eyes, with the help of a few margaritas, can turn a hobbit into a Hemsworth brother. It’s a talent curated by inebriation and fermented by cheap booze. However impressive, it’s a fruitless gift, which to date has produced nothing more than a series of bad decisions.

Morning light streams through the dusty plastic blinds. I glance at the face occupying the pillow to my left and sigh. Ben the banker, last night’s date, has hit his expiration. His snores and my sobriety have stripped him of his swagger. At midnight, he was a dead ringer for his profile picture. Now, he’s morphed back into a distant—less attractive—relative of that man.

I slip out of the unfamiliar bed, reassured by the fact I’m still wearing my bra and panties, and begin the scavenger hunt for my scattered belongings and whatever memories I can collect from last night.
I grab my phone from the borrowed charger. How is it already six? I have to be at Capitol Hill by seven.

Where’s my other shoe? I kneel to search under the nightstand. Please God, don’t make me hobble out of here on one wedge. I pause and lift my eyes to the ceiling. Sorry, God. I know helping promiscuous girls isn’t exactly your forte. But just this once? There’s no room for mistakes today.

Secret Agent #47

TITLE: The Summer of Miracle Maude
GENRE: MG Historical Adventure

"Emmmma! Emma Sue!"

Emma scrunched down in the hayloft. She wasn't coming out. Nosirree. It was killing time, and she wanted no part of killing.

"Emma Sue Saunders! I know you're in here."

The barn door squealed, and Emma peeked between the floorboards. Sunlight sliced the shaded barn below, illuminating Auntie like a statue under a spotlight. She stood stiff as a rake, her flowered housedress unwrinkled, her apron spotless, her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun on her head. She peered over her bifocals and glanced up at the loft.

"If you don't come now, you'll have no supper tonight."

Big threat. There was always breakfast tomorrow. And she'd rather starve than handle dead chickens. Especially the kind with no heads and bloody necks.

"That goes for the radio, too," Auntie called.

Emma jerked back. No radio? No radio meant missing Buck Rogers in the Twenty-first Century. She peeked at Auntie again, arms folded across her chest, one practical black shoe tap, tap, tapping.
Chickens or the radio? Chickens or the radio?

She should help with the chickens. After all, Auntie had taken her in. But killing chickens was gross. It was 1936 for crying out loud. Hadn't Auntie ever heard of a butcher shop? Still, Buck was caught in the clutches of that nasty space monster, and it hadn't sounded like escape was possible. She had to hear how that turned out.

Auntie headed for the door.

"All right! I'm coming," Emma said. Buck"s predicament far outweighed the gross factor of dead chickens.

Secret Agent #46

TITLE: The Kryptonite Club
GENRE: YA Contemporary

In all my sixteen years, I never thought I’d end up in a shrink’s office. But therapy’s a thing now. Especially since all the shootings that go on. Yeah, like the one that happened at Sherman Falls High School last fall.

When Dr. Neumann greeted me at the door, I was surprised by her appearance. I guess I expected a female version of Dr. Phil, but this woman in her navy belted shift dress and black flats looked like one of the ladies at our local library. She was nice looking, a bit on the chunky side, like my friend, Claire. Her hair was whitish gray, worn chin-length, smooth and sleek. She had on these red-framed glasses that were kind of cool looking, though I’d never tell her that.

Her office smelled like winter. Fresh, crisp, clean. The proper soothing earth tones, too, along with Jade plants, Bamboo plants . . . all very Feng Shui, as Mom would say. The blue overstuffed sofa was in the proper corner, facing the door so no one feels trapped. The wall paintings were of nature scenes. Trees, sunsets, lakes. One of them showed a horse drinking water out of a creek and it reminded me of MissFit, who my parents sold the week before the shooting happened. It made me want to cry so I shifted my focus to the aquarium with the little fishes of many colors, swimming around, all free and happy.

Secret Agent #45

TITLE: Summer of Soup
GENRE: MG Contemporary

My neighbors outside are trudging back and forth across their lawns to finish their mowing before the rain comes. Dark clouds threaten another summer storm. Cars caught off guard by the newly installed speed bump slam on their brakes a few seconds too late. Normally, I would find this hilarious. Watching the driver’s head bob as their cars bottom out on the raised cement sending sparks flying is quite entertaining. Not today though. Today is not funny.

My little brother helps himself to my room wearing the same monster truck shirt he wore to bed. Well, it’s our room now. I am being forced to share a room with an annoying brother who smells like a puppy, leaves minefields of Legos everywhere and sticks out his tongue as if it’s an Olympic sport.
“Get out!” I beam a stuffed bear at him.

He catches it with a sneer. “I don’t have too! It’s my room too.”

I roll my eyes at him. “Ugh! Don’t remind me.”

He sticks his tongue out at me while upending a bucket holding a gazillion Legos onto his racecar bed. The bed that’s now across the room from my pretty pink princess bed, which I’ve clearly outgrown.

Half deflated birthday balloons float in midair beside me. A reminder from just a few weeks ago before my summer plans became avoiding stray Legos on the midnight trek to the bathroom.

Secret Agent #44

TITLE: Fair Investigations!
GENRE: MG Historical Fiction

     Henry adjusted his round wire-rimmed glasses and studied the mural of constellations on the domed ceiling above. Unaware of passengers below, bustling their way through Grand Central Depot, he was transfixed. And feeling very small. Smaller than small. An insignificant dot in the Milky Way of life.

     A voice shook him from his pondering.

     “Henry! Can you believe this masterpiece?" said Henry’s big sister, gazing up beside him.

     “It's reversed,” he said in a monotone voice.

     “Reversed?” Alice raised her hands in question, then let them snap to her side. “What do you mean, Henry?” 

     “Not from our perspective. From His.” Henry pointed skyward, a smirk growing on his lips. “Human error.”

     “Oh, Henry. Don't spoil things again. Can't we enjoy a thing without finding fault with it? It's magnificent!” His sister gazed up with a look of awe, lips parted, her sea-blue eyes wide.

     The chime sounded on the four-faced clock on the main floor below. It was 5:30pm. In one hour, their journey would begin. Alice deemed it the very best thing. But to Henry, it was absolutely the worst.

     He hated change. All those destinations on the schedule board made him nervous. Why leave the comfort of home and routine to face new foes?

It wasn't his idea to go to Chicago. It was their uncle’s idea.

     Pulling a small brown leather book from his pocket, Henry penned his angst in his journal. Change equals disaster. 

 

Secret Agent #43

TITLE: THE GLASS
GENRE: MG Contemporary with a touch of historical fiction

245, 246, 247…248.

Did counting sheep really work for anyone?

Kenna Giles threw her pillow to the side and climbed out of bed as the clock on the dresser continued to tick away an eternity of seconds. Outside the window, the world was etched in predawn light—the time when it was neither dark nor light, and the eyes played tricks with the mind.

A mist hovered over the lake and against the forest, veiling its secrets.  Kenna rested her fingers on the cold window pane and squinted through the glass.  Hidden in the shadows of the woods stood a coyote. Kenna blinked, not trusting what she saw, but when she looked again, it was still there.  Its dark figure emerged from the trees and moved across the clearing to the edge of the lake.  The still water reminded her of a mirror and she watched the coyote stare at its reflection.  The coyote tilted its head, and its low yips grew louder, braiding into a chorus that matched the eerie darkness.  The hair on Kenna’s arms prickled and rose as a chill ran down her spine.  The landscape outside her grandmother’s house was haunted with secrets.  Ones Kenna wasn’t sure she wanted to learn. 

She shifted, and the floorboard sighed beneath her feet.  Shaking off the shiver, she stepped away and slid back into bed being careful not to wake Addie Harper who slept cuddled up on the love seat on the other side of the room. 

Secret Agent #42

TITLE: The Ship of the Damned
GENRE: YA Historical Magical Realism

April 1719

I was one of the few without a weapon in the tavern. Some of the men wore cutlasses at their sides while others had pistols tucked into a belt or a waistband. Several possessed both weapons. But that was to be expected from pirates. They refused to settle differences with their fists. They had to make it lethal.

I strode past multiple groups sitting at long wooden tables and made my way to the bar. The bartender waved at me once I arrived.

“Anne,” the bearded man said. “The usual?”

I smiled and nodded. It paid to be a frequent visitor. They always knew what I wanted. Both in terms of drinks and men or women. Luckily, this port was always crawling with pirates. I had plenty to choose from.

The bartender handed me a small glass. The dark wine inside the glass shone a deep red as it reflected the lantern light above me. Its sweetness was a treat I allowed myself to enjoy almost daily. Most others settled for ale or rum. It was cheaper, but I wasn’t fond of the taste.

I glanced across the tavern as its dark wood door swung open. The man who walked was tall with dark hair and tanned skin. It was the way he surveyed the room before him that drew me in. His glance dripped with arrogance. The man was like a king surveying his kingdom. He didn’t just belong in this tavern. It was his to do with what he liked.

Secret Agent #41

TITLE: #GOALS
GENRE: YA Contemporary Romance

I’d learned to be a butterfly. Never landing for too long, always on the move. They couldn’t get to know the real you if you weren’t there long. They couldn’t reject the real you if you never showed it to them.

This is my motto, my mantra. But it kind of went out the window at freshman soccer try outs when Queen Bee Natalie asked me to join her group of popular elites. Always being unnoticed and never measuring up had me overlooking her motives and jumping at the chance. Little did I know I’d be catering to her and becoming a fake version of myself to maintain that spot.

I’d always envied her ragtag clan of rich social climbers. My best friend Luke is a part of the group, but I couldn’t get in without Natalie’s say so. Now I was one of them, popular—minus the rich part—and I liked that feeling, even with the catering bit.

I look down the field at my team of girls facing off against the team of boys in our second annual competitive game before the start of school. This is my first time participating in this particular friendship ritual. My teammates and I exchange a smirk; the boys are going down. We’re in constant competition of who plays better soccer, even though most of the boys are already on the Varsity team. Fingers are crossed for us making it this year.

Secret Agent #40

TITLE: Thunder Girls
GENRE: MG Contemporary

Emily glared at her mom like a pitcher staring down a batter. She might not be able to strike her out, but she could disagree with her. Mom lifted a moving box on to the kitchen counter and looked out the window, “Why don’t you unpack your glove?” she said indicating two girls playing catch in the lawn next door.

“No! I told you already, I’m never playing softball again,” she said running back upstairs. Emily slammed the door to her new room with the new wet paint. Her fists clenched to her sides. She leaned against the door and tried to slow her breath. Her chest heaved in and out, like she ran all the bases after hitting a homerun.

She remembered the still wet paint and jumped away from the door to check her tee-shirt for white smears. The smell of the fresh paint in her room gave her mom a migraine. Earlier, Mom opened all the windows on the second floor before going downstairs to unpack the boxes in the kitchen. The breeze blew through the room and with it came voices and shouts.

Emily went to the window to slam it shut on those two softball-playing girls, but then she heard an intriguing sound. A sound that transported her back to dusty ball fields she tried so hard to forget. The sound of a cheer she screamed a thousand times.

Secret Agent #39

TITLE: Seven Rivers
GENRE: YA thriller/suspense

Daylight faded. Watching through the windshield of her car, the woman gripped the steering wheel as the sun sank behind the western bluffs, limning the sandstone rock in a blood orange laser beam of light. The river below radiated like a fever. Shadows dissolved the woods in front of her to a mass of shivering black. The sky held violet.

Now in late April, spring pushed through the last scabbed crust of winter, shooting up stalks and tendrils and blades. Riotous shades of green appeared overnight. Thin stems of wood swelled after a soaking rain, stippling the landscape with misted blobs of chartreuse and lime. Morning sunlight was acid bright, thick gold in the afternoon.

In the damp pines overhead, a fox sparrow whistled three-note trills. High up on the thermals, a hawk turned a slow arc in the gloaming.

The woman in the car watched, unseeing, thinking only of death. She pictured other people’s demise, the ways and means. Heart attack. Car accident. An unfortunate fall down a flight of stairs.

Accidental drowning. Electrocution. Food poisoning. She thought of immediate family members and distant relatives. Random pedestrians on the sidewalk, walking dogs and pushing strollers. It happened often these days, at strange and tedious times. Standing in line at the checkout, she’d examine the cashier, the middle-aged housewife in front of her plopping bags of apples and pears, cans of tuna on the conveyor belt.

Secret Agent #38

TITLE: 12 DATES
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

Dreama pulled her sweater up letting the vent chill her skin. Nowhere near enough relief. Images flashed of whipping off her top to reveal her bra, laughing at shocked and admiring looks. She wondered if that actually ever happened, or heatstroke was projecting a cooling fantasy.

People packed the Metro. She was lucky to have a seat, stretching her throbbing feet. It had already been a long day. One of many chaotic days over the next month.

Back on the street, pushing through crowds, she cursed the heatwave they’d been sweating through all week. She should be home, opening a book or logging online, but she promised Melinda yesterday at Thanksgiving to come watch the parade. She had regrets, but listening to her cousin's complaints later would be worse. Her work shirt was crammed in her bag, so she ducked in a restroom to change.
The sweater came from Melinda who’d sworn temperatures would drop. "Please! I want to see you wear it. Besides, you’ll look more festive," Melinda had drawled. "And less book nerdy. We know that's not really your style."

She’d punctuated with a sarcastic smile, which Dreama reflected in the mirror. Nerdy’s definitely more my style than cheesy Christmas sweater.

She shoved it in the bag, smoothed her Books-R-Us polo, and left the restroom cooler, though summer-like temperatures baked her pale skin. She took comfort knowing everyone was hot, though the heat was affecting D.C.'s odor and collective mood.

"Oh, no! So sorry!"

The apology resounded before warm liquid seeped onto her skin.

Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Wish I Was Here
GENRE: YA Romance

By the time I reached Isaac's house, the knot in my stomach would put Boy Scouts to shame. Asking me to come over after school, something I did automatically, was my second clue something was wrong. The first was him concentrating during our chem lab. Isaac Mason needing to think hard about science was like Michelangelo struggling to paint a fence.

I parked on Isaac’s quiet street. At mid-afternoon, with the nine-to-fivers still at work, the place felt like a ghost town. I used the spare key to let myself in.

“Is that you, Ana?”

“Who else would it be?”

“Did you lock the—?”

“I’m locking it now.”

“Good.”

I headed to the basement. Isaac’s adoptive parents had let him take over the space. It was filled with bookshelves lined with his numerous creations, many of which I couldn’t identify, but some were robots that could scratch Isaac’s back, open and hand him soda cans, and pick things up off the floor. One of them could probably defuse bombs if Isaac wanted it to.

A worn-out suitcase stood at the bottom of the stairs. A white T-shirt poked out between the case’s zippered teeth. The sight of it sent a shiver through me. Was he going somewhere? Without me?

“Isaac? What’s going on?”

He glanced up from piling notebooks into another suitcase. His movements were jerky, agitated. “I’ll make this quick. I don’t know how much time I have.”

Secret Agent #36

TITLE: Ho Ho Ho
GENRE: MG Fantasy adventure

I have a story to tell. One you won’t believe. But I swear, not a word of it is made up. You are already skeptical. I understand. Liars often tell you that their story is true. I may be a lot of unflattering things, but I am not a liar. So do me a favor. Listen to the end, and then decide for yourself, okay?
First off, for you to understand this story, we have to establish one particularly earth-shattering fact. Here goes… Santa Claus is real. I know, I know, I’m thirteen years old – much too old to believe in Santa, but I’ve seen the bastard with my own two eyes, and he is real I tell you. Real!

Did I lose you already? Are you shaking your head, considering putting this tale down? Don’t – because you need to hear this. You need to hear the truth about Santa Claus. Your very life may depend on it, and in fact, if you are unlucky enough to see him, take my advice. Run. Run far, scream for help, and don’t look back. Because Santa is real, and that is not good news.

Again, I swear, I’m not a liar. I know I’m not a good kid – I was never good. In fact, I am a downright mean, snot-nosed, spoiled, selfish little hellion. Santa checked his list twice, and I was at the top of the naughty column both times.

Secret Agent #35

TITLE: The Hidden World
GENRE: MG Fantasy

            Kevin slammed the door as he left the house. Spring break was going to be awful. The barn cat followed him as he walked down the trail to the large stream at the back of their property.

            “What the heck?” he said as he looked at the water. A girl was sitting on a rock reading a book. A rock you couldn’t get to without getting wet, and she was dry. Her blond hair hung around her face and her clothes were shimmery with streaks of green that seemed to move.

            “Hey! Are you stuck?” he asked. The girl looked behind her as if he couldn’t possibly be speaking to her. “You, on the rock!”

             “Are you talking to me?” she asked.

             “Who else would I be talking to?”

            “You can see me?”

            She must have escaped from the loony bin. “Uh, yeah. How’d you get on that rock without getting wet?”

            “You can hear me?”

            Geez, she’s really crazy. “Okay, where are you from? Um, where are your parents?” The girl lowered her face but not before Kevin saw her frown. Maybe her parents are dead and she’s gone snappy. “I’ll go get a board so you can walk to the bank. Don’t go anywhere.” That was a stupid thing to say, he thought as he turned away.

            “I don’t understand,” she said.

             Kevin spun back toward the stream, thinking her voice sounded much closer. The girl, completely dry, was standing on the bank. “How did…” he trailed off.

Secret Agent #34

TITLE: The Judgment of Solomon
GENRE: Adult Historical Romance

Friday, 22 February 1946
Krakow, Poland

           Lidia was bent over the sink, scrubbing the utensils until they gleamed in the faint kerosene lamp lit room. Wisps of hair sprang free from the clasp that held her golden locks back. The humidity from the scalding water made her skin sticky. Her day at the factory had been an arduous one, followed by a two-kilometer stroll home, and then she spent an hour preparing dinner. She was exhausted; her muscles knotted between her shoulders and her ankles ached. She ought to have been in a bad mood.

            Instead, she was bemused.

            Her daughters, Sophie and Ewa’s lively chatter from the kitchen table brought a tiny smile to Lidia’s face. They were sketching everything from Father Cieslik to a neighborhood cat on a scrap of paper, using the nub of a pencil. Life was a constant struggle but her girls were worth every hardship.

            An impatient knock summoned her from her chore. Drying her hands on her apron, Lidia swept through the sitting room. Answering the door, she found a man on the doorstep. He was slightly taller than she was and spare. His graying hair uncommonly long, fell on the upturned collar of his coat. Only men mimicking the way poet Juliusz Slowacki dressed, calling it the “Slowacki look” wore their hair that long. Twin lines made parentheses beginning at his nose and ending by his chin, barricading his thin lips.

Secret Agent #33

TITLE: Stoking Hope
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

London 1894

She slipped, the steamer trunk falling from her grasp. Marie righted her bonnet and looked at her husband.

Karl Kraus grunted and pointed to their trunk’s corner, a fresh dent marring the smooth tin.

Es tut mir leid,” Marie apologized. A hand on the trunk’s lid, she dragged her boot along the bricks, scraping horse droppings from her sole. Raised on a farm, she was used to manure, but there was so much of it here. So much of everything. Buildings. Horses. And people, pushing and yelling their way across the city that was dark in mid-afternoon.

Englisch,” Karl said.

Marie spoke little English. She grew up believing she would never leave Germany, believing she would never need another language, but when she accepted Karl's proposal, he announced they would be emigrating to America. Eyes closed, she pictured home. Verdant meadows surrounded by dense forests. Dark birds wheeling through a sapphire sky. Tears threatened and she fought against them. Married three weeks, she already learned her husband loathed weeping. Loathed any weakness. Marie was tired of holding back her tears. Her father frowned upon them the day she married. Her mother scolded her for crying the morning after her wedding. And Karl forbid her tears when she said goodbye to her family for the last time and climbed into the back of the wagon that took her to a train station in Dusseldorf for the journey to London.

Secret Agent #32

TITLE: Charles Sampson - Paranormal Investigator
GENRE: YA Detective / Magical Realism

Autumn was over. The leaves had turned and the light of the sun was slowly dimming as it hung over Whitegrove. The weather could not keep people from their business across the streets, and life continued as normal as the cold set in. A large rook hopped along the roof of one of the busier establishments. A wooden sign hung high and declared it to be called the Chambers Club, home to various ways of losing ones money and senses. A loud bang on a table inside startled the rook and it took to a hasty flight.

Smoke hung in the air of the Chambers Club, floating lazily across the card table and around it's five occupants. Only two men were left in the game. They sat opposite each other in silence with a small array of coins in between them. The first man kept his eyes calmly locked on his opponent who couldn't seem to decide between looking at his cards, his money or the man across the ocean of wood. The silence around the table was broken by the man with nervous eyes,

“Damn it, Sampson, you must be bluffing. You can't have a winning hand again.” He struggled to hide the agitation in his voice, his thin moustache quivering as he spoke.

“That did not sound like a wager to me, Davenport.” Their eyes were locked now. Davenport looked torn between folding and betting.

Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Invasion
GENRE: MG Historical Fiction

June 1940

Bernie’s lungs burned. Sweat mingled with ocean spray and matted his hair to his forehead. He sucked in gulps of air, pumped his legs like a steam engine, and reached out to touch the weathered boulder that marked the finish line.

           Emma surged past him, her blonde hair streaming out behind her. Her fingers slapped the rock a fraction of a second before Bernie touched it.

            He dropped onto the sand, rested his hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. “I must be daft to keep racing you.”

            Emma laughed and sank down beside him. “Don’t feel bad, I’ve been practicing for almost twelve years.” She patted his shoulder. “I’m an unstoppable force.”

            Bernie rubbed the stitch in his side. “No argument there.”

            They sat in comfortable silence and soaked up the late afternoon sun. Bernie loved their island, perched in the Channel between England and France like a vacation postcard come to life. Fishing boats, yachts, and freighters dotted the harbor. Rows of brightly painted houses surrounded the blue-green sea. Flowers splashed bits of color here and there. Waves breaking against the shore provided background music, adding to the sense of peacefulness on the tiny island.

            But in the last few days, a new sound had sailed over the water, rumbled up the sand, and crashed over Bernie’s world. An ugly sound. A scary sound. A sound that threatened everything.

Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Truths in the Treetops
GENRE: YA contemporary with paranormal elements

Sultry heat scorches my skin as I shuffle down the hill with Asha, the hot breeze offering no relief. I’m half way to the bottom, my sneakers thwacking against the grass, when a chill skitters down my spine and settles in my bones. I stop in my tracks. And shiver. Like I’m gripped by fever or the flu. Riddled with goosebumps and shaking like a leaf, my teeth chatter. It’s a blistering August day in Bucks County and suddenly, I’m freezing.

Asha jerks her head in my direction. She reaches over and touches my arm. “Gabby, you okay? Geez, you have goosebumps all over your arm.” 

“Yeah, no. I just got this crazy chill. Like a blast of cold air went right through me.” I sigh. “Must be the heat. I’m delirious.”

“Or it’s a ghost,” Asha says with a straight face. “You know a lot of the old Victorian houses around here are supposed to be haunted. I wouldn’t be surprised if these woods are too.” She shrugs. “I didn’t feel anything, though.” She snorts and elbows me. “Maybe this ghost has a thing for you.”
I purse my lips. “Like I said, it’s probably just the heat.”

I don’t want to entertain the idea of a ghost ‘having a thing for me’. I didn’t sleep for a whole month three summers ago after watching The Sixth Sense at Emma’s house, thinking there were ghosts walking among us.

Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Minus The Renaissance Guy
GENRE: MG Magical Realism

I’ve finished my homework and crossed the last assignment off my list when I get a new text. It’s in a font I’ve never seen before, one that looks almost like calligraphy.

Come hither now, and hear an epic tale.
A golden boy, at nothing could he fail.
The setting? A sleepy town called Stratfordale.
Not England, 'cause this ain't The Holy Grail.
Nor out at sea; there is no Moby whale.
This stanza's done; my rhyme is getting stale.

Our hero is a boy with many skills.
His thirst for knowledge never gets its fill.
The villains go to Avon School. My hunch?
Before this first act ends you'll hear a crunch.
I'll guide you as emotions run amok
Perhaps I'll intervene as well -- I'm Puck!

“What in the heck…”

Before I can examine the poem more closely, my phone blows up. Text notifications buzz one after the other, telling me to check out www.countdowntovictory.com. My skin tightens as I type in the web address. When the page loads, my eyes are assaulted by a screen filled with nastiness. The background is emblazoned:

Avon Middle School -- Champions Forever

There’s a countdown clock running. Some quick math confirms that it will hit zero at the start of the awards ceremony for the annual Renaissance Festival. Above the clock it says:

Countdown to our next victory
Why bother trying? You know we’ll win again.

Secret Agent #28

TITLE: Fatal Errors
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction/Suspense

So I’m a hacker—get over it. My boss Patrice sure did, as long as she could use me. But I didn’t realize that until I got fired. That Gypsy sixth-sense Grandma Zigana insists I have failed me miserably.

Patrice had appeared at my cubicle in the college computer center one morning in late November and offered to buy coffee. Of course I accepted. Only after we were seated at Beaner’s did she blindside me.

“You’re firing me?” I echoed.

I clutched my mug of chai, hoping to ward off the chill her announcement caused. My question silenced the chatty barista at the counter behind me, and I wanted the trio at the next table to stop staring. They did when I glared at them.

Patrice looked everywhere but at me as she fidgeted, adding more sugar to her already syrupy coffee, checking her watch.

“You’re firing me,” I repeated, only a tad calmer.

“It’s been brought to my attention that you’ve been bypassing security protocols to gain access to confidential files.” Patrice could have been reading from the employee handbook.

I groped for a semi-professional answer, glad most of the Gem City Business College students—at least anyone I knew—were gone for the long holiday weekend. I hate scenes.

Silence stretched while a scathing response eluded me. My mood dropped to match the gloomy November weather. Twice in my twenty-four years, my hacking had backfired, leaving me betrayed by someone I trusted.

Bypassing security protocols my ass. “At your request.”

Secret Agent #27

TITLE: THE RUNAWAYS: A Billie Rose Tackett Horse Adventure
GENRE: MG Fantasy Horse Adventure

I shouldn’t pick that funny looking pony, the one with the scruffy red coat and ears cocked sideways. But I know I will.

She turns her head and stares right at me like she knows I’ll choose her.

I suspect at one time her creamy mane and tail flowed long and straight, but now it’s dirty and tangled. Big patches of shaggy winter coat hang from her flanks. Her forelock drapes over one eye in a matted strand. I’d love to spend hours brushing her, cleaning her up, just being with her and smelling her horsiness.

“Okay kids come on in,” yells the ticket taker. “Mount your favorite pony.”

I race right to her. She stands much taller than the other ponies. I stroke along the front of her face. Her head hangs low, eyelids half closed.

I push aside the hank of hair so she can see better, then pull up the extra-large saddle blanket. It covers her bony rump all the way to her tail. Oh, poor pony. I feel her ribs and my heart cries.
“Rita Rose,” I yell to my big sister waiting for me outside the fence. “This pony’s too skinny. And look at the poop all over her little belly. I can’t ride her. She’s sick.”

The pony turns her head. Her dark eyes are now wide-open looking right into mine. Weird tingles stretch up through my scalp and down my back. I feel a little wobbly.












Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Camper Kids
GENRE: MG Contemporary Fiction

Nathan had been sticking stickers on his bedroom door since he was old enough to stand on his own two feet. At the very bottom, he’d stuck on letters, numbers, colors, and shapes from the last page in an activity book. A little higher up were trains, trucks, planes, and construction vehicles. Next were the dinosaurs. Above those were superheroes and Star Wars characters that glowed in the dark. Then came sea creatures, specifically several species of sharks. At the top, and as tall as he was now, was his current obsession: famous monuments like Mount Rushmore, the White House, the Gateway Arch, and the Statue of Liberty.


He had never seen any of them in person, but he was fascinated by them and had checked out several library books on the subject. Nathan did not always like to do things (that required having to put on socks and shoes, and leave the comfort of his bedroom), but he did like to read about them.
Every time he got a vaccine at the doctor’s office or an A plus on a spelling test, he put the sticker he’d been given as a reward on his door, right at eye level. Except for the ones he didn’t like. One Halloween, he’d found a spider sticker in his treat bag that was actually furry. He was afraid of spiders (one of his many dark secrets) and he was especially afraid of this one with its little hairs.

Secret Agent #25

TITLE: THE MAGIC OF A RE-DO YEAR
GENRE: MG Magical Realism

The Fourth of July crackled and popped all around, but that wasn’t why Lily pressed her hands against her ears.

It also wasn’t because her stepdad Todd had just dropped a cherry bomb from his shaky hands. Even after Aunt Linda had said, “maybe you shouldn’t be lighting that Todd, you’ve had quite a bit to drink."

He’d only slurred a garbled answer and lit a match anyway. But Aunt Linda was right. Fire had brushed his fingers and down it fell.

BANG!

Hitting the patio cement hard, its echoes still filled the yard. Uncle Sam had grabbed her cousin Michael away just in time.

No, it was her mom running from the house yelling, “That’s it! Things can't go on like this.” Lily squeezed her hands tighter, attempting to drown out her mom pleading—again.

So much for the best day ever. They were supposed to be celebrating not only the Fourth of July, but also her twelfth birthday.

Todd hardly reacted; he just wandered over to a folding chair. As he plopped down, his hand snagged the red, white, and blue tablecloth and Lily’s birthday cake went splat. He didn't even seem to notice. His head lolled over, his chin hit his chest, and a snore came out. 

Suddenly the festive decorations looked phony. Her mom had tried so hard. But who were they kidding? He ruined everything lately.

Lily slipped her hands from her ears and let them dangle.

Secret Agent #24

TITLE: THE BOYS OF ALPHA BLOCK
GENRE: Adult General fiction


Tarvis Phillip James crouched against the rough rubber mat, balling himself into a tight human fist. Making himself small, and invisible. Well, it was too late for that. He was fucked. They could see him, and worse, they could smell him and the vomit and stench of the detention center. Game over, and it could only get worse from here on out. He was now the property of the Alpha Juvenile Prison system.  

He rose up, careful not to make a sound, and peered out the side window of the van. A grey cinder block building squatted among the palm trees at the end of a long drive.  No windows in the place, not an opening in sight. Only one way in, he could see, and certainly no way out.

The van screeched to a halt in front of metal double doors. Tarvis’s knees shook. His insides were screaming.

No welcome sign.

The window of the van was open an inch, and the quiet-- except for the crackle of palms in a light wind--was unnerving.

What if I just bust out this door and make a run for it? What would they do? Shoot me? That might be good

The double doors blasted open. Six deputies in green tumbled out of the darkness, shiny metal objects jangling at their waists. To Tarvis, it seemed like some damn alien movie.

Secret Agent #23

TITLE: More Than This
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

Three nerve-wracking days on the road and three sleepless nights, and her escape – at least this initial one -- was near completion. Lainey breathed fully for the first time in months as she left the highway, her borrowed vehicle hugging the curves of the empty road. The late day sun amplified colors and sharpened objects, painting the high desert landscape in rose-gold hues. More shades seemed to exist in the color spectrum, and Lainey already could understand the appeal of this place to artists, writers, wanderers. As a fellow settler, she hoped she too would be enchanted.

In a flash of movement, a tan and brown dog darted in front of her car. Startled, Lainey hit the brakes, her heart racing at the near miss. The dog continued to run down the center of the road in a panicked gait. Her heart still pounding, Lainey carefully began to follow the animal in her car, debating whether to catch it and bring it to a shelter. There must be a way she could drop it off safely…and anonymously.

As she approached the dog, she noticed its matted fur and scraggy tail and frowned. Maybe the poor animal was abused. Maybe the shelter would try to reunite it with its owners. Maybe it would better to just let it complete its own escape.

Then the dog turned and stared at Lainey with yellow, feral eyes.

“Whoa! Eres un coyote…,” she marveled out loud.

Secret Agent #22

TITLE: SEVEN FOR A SECRET
GENRE: YA Thriller

We killed him in the forest where the girls went missing and the silence covered up their names.
We stabbed him first, one by one and then over and over again until there was more blood in the moss and the soil than in his body.

And then we dragged his body through the forest as he had dragged ours, night after night, and this time it felt like going home.

There is a small shack in the wild green outside the town where we all see faces in the dark.
It was there we cut him up, limb by limb by limb. We used his saws, the ones our bones once felt, and we wept—but not for him.

Never for him.

We wept for us, girls who vanished into silence as if we had never existed at all.

We buried him where he always buried us, under the looming, all-seeing oaks who groan and mumble in the wind.

He had buried all of us there.

So now he lies among us, and we dare you to find him.

Come looking for him, if you can bear it.

Come, uncover our crime, and see what we have done at the heart of the forest—but before you reach his bones, you will find ours in rows of teeth and narrow shoulders.

Before you find him, you will have to face us.

Secret Agent #21

TITLE: You Know Where I Am
GENRE: YA Coming of Age/ Contemporary

Jesse Kincaid walked to the nursing home her father, Casey, had lived in for the last year, every day after school without fail. Putting in her time and being the dutiful daughter. This was her life since she was three years old, spending every birthday either at home taking care of Dad or in the company of medical staff. For her thirteenth birthday, she was given a hard cupcake and a pat on the head. Jesse didn't waste her time thinking about other thirteen year olds birthdays, it wasn't worth it to wonder what it might be like to be someone else.

Second shift was starting as Jesse came in and took her place in the orange chair. Nurse's aides came in and gave him fresh towels, stocked wipes and swabbed his mouth out.

“We have an extra water pitcher, Mrs. Abernathy died, do you want it?” the aide asked.

Jesse knew that Mrs. Abernathy's mug hadn't been touched by her dead lips and was washed every day, but the thought of getting something from someone who'd only been dead a day unsettled her.
The aides took their leave of Jesse and she took his tray table out to do her homework. This was Jesse's life ever since she was three years old. She never knew her father in the way everyone else did. She knew the man who screamed, drooled and soiled himself

Secret Agent #20

TITLE: FAKING IT
GENRE: MG contemporary

No one ever said butchery was easy. I slide the steel blade down the delicate white backbone careful not to pierce the meat on either side. I want to get two clean, unbroken cuts. They make it look easy in videos. Lesson #1: Don’t trust videos. You see the edited, cleaned up version. You don’t see the hundred early attempts and apocalyptic fails.

“Do you need to watch it again?” Addie asks, Her face is scrunched up and she has that You’re not doing it right! expression that she gets when my performance is not up to her ridiculously high standards. The knife shakes in my hand but I rein it in trying  not to get frazzled by her scowl. I cannot let my nerves get the best of me. Chef Graysen Randall says a top competitor must keep his cool at all times He’s my hero and I channel him every time I cook. Well, him and my dad. My dad’s almost as famous as Graysen Randall. Too bad he’s not much of a father.

“No, I think I have this.” I’m careful to fold the breast off the bone.  A bead of sweat is beginning to trek its way down my forehead but I swipe it off with the cuff of my new white jacket. If I mess up, Addie will make me do it again. And again. And again. I place one flat on the cutting board.

Secret Agent #19

TITLE: CHOICES
GENRE: Adult Historical Romance

Chapter 1 – NEW YORK, 1906 — LIAM

“Nanny Deirdre, Nanny Deirdre,” the five-year old boy called, “watch me run up the hill.”

“Careful, Master Charles,” Deirdre said.

“Oh, let him be,” a man’s voice whispered in her ear.

Deirdre jumped up from her seat on the bench and spun around, her hand clutching her chest. Liam stood behind her.

“Do you think that little bump on the ground could cause him harm, Deirdre?”

“Liam? Is it really you? Oh, Liam, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Come here and give me a hug, love.”

“Liam O’Mara! Have you no manners at all anymore? A hug? In broad daylight? Really, Liam.” Eyes downcast, she smoothed the front of her apron and fixed her cap as her cheeks turned bright red.
His booming laugh attracted the attention of the other nannies who were out in Central Park on this warm sunny day. After days of cold rainy weather, everyone was relieved to finally bring their charges outdoors where they could release some of their pent-up energy. When she looked up, she saw the same mischievous smile she had known all her life. Even Liam’s slightly bent nose, a result of his many prize fights, couldn’t detract from his handsome face, chestnut hair, and twinkling green eyes. His laugh, good looks, six-foot one stature, and barrel chest kept the other nannies focused on him.

Regaining her composure, Deirdre asked, “Are you back in New York for good, now? Or is this another quick stop between boxing exhibitions?”

Secret Agent #18

TITLE: A Crossing of Shadow
GENRE: MG Fantasy

The wheels from my bike whirred as I raced down the narrow trail behind my house, taking the shortcut through the thick woods. As I neared the bottom of the trail, I slowed. My knee still ached from the memory of the crash I’d taken from hitting the bulging roots of the sycamore a few months ago, just before my twelfth birthday. I carefully swerved around the tree before pedaling harder, sweeping through the quiet forest. The smell of the moist pine needles did little to lift my gloomy mood.

I skidded to a stop by the main gate of the abandoned amusement park.

ENCHANTED EMERALD PARK

The bright-colored paint of the words had long since faded under years of damp Portland winters. A “Closed for Repair” sign hung crookedly over it. Even with the sign, the place was a favorite of kids playing hooky or hippies holding drum circles.

I slipped through the hole in the chain-link fence, my pulse still pounding from the bike ride, and wove through the wooden beams of the rollercoaster. The “Jackrabbit”, along with the rest of the carnival had closed when World War II had started. I passed by the carousel, a cheery parade of prancing horses now overgrown with green moss and dead leaves. The faded colors today seemed especially dull. This had been the day I'd said goodbye to my brother Jeremy. The day the draft had called him to war.

Secret Agent #17

TITLE: BETWEEN REALITIES
GENRE: Adult Speculative Fiction Suspense

My life evaporates like a vivid dream fading upon waking as I soar through the black air. It’s not too late to stop this from happening, but that would be worse. This is what must be done. I fall… fall… fall until there’s nothing.

****

I’m somewhere between floating and sinking, between awake and dreaming. I’m weightless, yet heavy at the same time.

My eyes burn when I open them. I gasp for air, but it’s water that floods up my nose and clogs my throat. It’s cold and stinks like wormy mud. Short labored coughs come nonstop to reject it until stinging air fills my lungs.

My feet search for the ground; it’s not there. Water pushes trying to carry me away, but only burying me deeper into the heap of wires I’m tangled in. They poke and scratch my skin, and pull my hair. I grab onto one and it snaps. They’re not wires, branches. I’m caught in a fallen tree. I grip the trunk to pull myself up, but the current wins and bark wedges under my nails as I slide back down.

No. I am not going to drown.

I reach for the trunk again, kicking my leg over to pull myself on top. Gasping for breaths, I take in the darkness touched only by moonlight and the hum of crickets. Everything is out of focus, including my mind.

How did I get in the river?

Secret Agent #16

TITLE: THE RESCUER
GENRE: MG Science Fiction

           Prok Zandin sat alone at his usual table, tinkering with a small engine. The ocean pressing against the massive window beside him sent a chill into the Year Two Common Room, reminding him of home. Fellow students crowded the room, working on various projects, studying, and chatting with friends.

            A shadow blocked the light and Prok’s heart sank.

            Mavrick Denly, surrounded by his usual group of friends and admirers, placed his hands on the table, leaning forward to crowd Prok’s workspace.

            “What a waste. Playing around with mechanics when you could be flying or fighting. You know, the stuff Sea Warriors actually do.”

             The air thickened as nearby students stopped what they were doing and waited for the fight they probably expected to come. Prok didn’t blame them. After all, he had taken a swing at Mavrick on their first day of Year Two four weeks ago. He locked eyes with Mavrick’s blue ones, the exact shade of navy as his Bureaucrat synthe-suit.

            “I hear Sea Warriors try to rely on diplomacy as much as fighting,” he said coolly.

            A flush rose to Mavrick’s cheeks, making Prok smile although the satisfaction would be short-lived. It wouldn’t take long for Mavrick to come up with another insult — he was top of their class, tied with Prok.

             Mavrick's next attack came quickly, accompanied with more venom.

            “The scholarship program is the only reason you even got into Archan. You’re nobody special. You’re just someone’s charity case.”

Secret Agent #15

TITLE: Don't Ask Me
GENRE: MG Contemporary

My bestest friend is rocking it at the front of the classroom, doing her Morgan Thing and dazzling the thirty or so kids who will be this year’s Bark staff.

Half an hour ago Morgan looped her arm through mine while I was adjusting the mini-chandelier in my new locker and then dragged me down the hall to this afterschool meeting. It’s Day Two of eighth grade, and we’re both superexcited. This is going to be the best year ever for our posse. We’ve waited forever to rule the Middle School, and Morgan’s wanted to be the editor of a paper since sixth grade, when she spent her weekends making up school news articles for Hogwarts.

Now she’s calling my name.

“Holls? What are your ideas?”

Shoot! I thought I was here only for emotional support. My heart starts racing in a slight panic, so I take in a yoga breath and scan the room, focusing on girls’ cell phone covers and backpacks, two of the few ways you can set yourself apart fashion-wise at Dallas Country Day. As I exhale, I glance at Mom’s Us Weekly, which I’ve been secretly flipping through under my desk top.

I’ve got this.

“How about some kind of ‘Who Wore It Better?’” I say, slightly changing the name of the magazine’s fashion column. I hold up the pages so everyone can clearly see how Duchess Kate beats Mandy Moore in the same red maxi dress.

Secret Agent #14

TITLE: Twenty Five Sundays
GENRE: MG Fantastical

The first time Ellie felt the hum was on aisle three at Junior’s Market. A light vibration tickled the underside of both eyelids while she searched for egg noodles. A swirling gray shadowy shape appeared in the corner of her eye, but then it was gone. She blinked, set her basket down to rub her eyes and the sensation stopped. She picked up her basket again. Where in the world were the egg noodles?

“Can I help?” Junior, the owner of the market, asked, smiling at her while he wiped down his check stand.

Ellie shook her head, probably harder than was polite, but then tossed him a wave just in case. “Got it, thanks.” She’d already asked for help three times. Four felt like too many. She scanned the shelves. Wasn’t like she’d never been in a store by herself before. She was almost thirteen.

“You’re doing great.”

Of course she was doing great. Why wouldn’t she be doing great? The beef stock squatted on the bottom shelf like a frog. She pulled one can—no, two cans—and dropped them into her basket along with the rest of the ingredients for Daddy’s special dinner. Junior’s, despite its small corner-store size, always seemed to have what they needed. Next, she tried to remember whether “cream” on her list meant sour cream or the milk kind of cream.

It was when she passed by the frozen raspberries that her eyelids tingled again.

Secret Agent #13

TITLE: THE WAY IT IS, 1959
GENRE: MG HISTORICAL FICTION

“Patsy, stop that infernal daydreaming,” Mother said. The words whooshed out of her like air from a punctured bicycle tire. Then after a sharp inhale, “Don’t you drop that sheet in the dirt!”

“Yes, ma’am.” I grabbed the wet sheet corner and sniffed the unmistakable scent of Clorox. She would have a hissy-fit for sure if I let go of the sheet.

Boy howdy, Mother always interrupted my daydreams. I conjured up another. I was tramping through mounds of snow. Nice, cold snow up to my knees…

                   “Patsy?”  Mother called my name with an arched eyebrow.

                    Dang it! Busted again.  How does she do it? I swiped away a sweat mustache with the back of my free hand, then licked the salt from my lips. Lordy mordy. Mother thinks August
and chores go together like bread and mayonnaise.

                   Perspiration dripped onto the lenses of my glasses. Do they make glasses with windshield wipers? I pushed the mother-of-pearl frames up for the umpteenth time and wished I’d
pulled my hair into a ponytail this morning. It hung thick around my neck and shoulders like the Cowardly Lion’s mane in The Wizard of Oz.

       The sweet scent of honeysuckle drifted towards me from branches draped over the fence behind the clothesline. Daddy’ll be home in a few hours, I thought, and pressed my lips
together. That uneasy-butterfly-feeling began in the pit of my stomach as it did every day  around 5:30.


Secret Agent #12

TITLE: All the Time in the World
GENRE: YA Contemporary Romance

Deirdre Lyttle has all the time in the world.

Sometimes, it’s a terrible burden.

They say time is a relative concept, used to push the world along, a measurement of self-worth and importance. Deirdre closes her eyes, feeling the clock at work.

April 3rd, 2029. 7:20 pm.

She has a day planner, a watch, an alarm clock, a daily routine, all tools to keep her life in order.
Except time isn’t natural. Animals don’t use planners. Trees don’t wear watches. Fish don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve. Only humans chart the days ahead, which means they alone suffer in a scheduled existence. They recognize someday, printed on a distant calendar, that their lives will unexpectedly end, and they’ll be gone.

But the question will remain: Did they make the time count?

Deirdre thinks about her mother, a woman who uses her time well. There’s rarely a moment where Michelle Lyttle hasn’t locked herself in the drafty basement, beneath the light fixtures that blink and buzz, welding panels together, so her exploratory vehicle can withstand Mars’ frigid temperatures without cracking.

Michelle says being a good engineer requires hard work and vision. You cannot be afraid to get your hands dirty, to burn the tips with a soldering iron or give yourself a jolt as you test the live wire. But to be a great engineer, you need perseverance. And time.

Secret Agent #11

TITLE: DREAMWALKERS
GENRE: YA Magical realism
                                                                                                                                     DREAMWALKERS

Transcript [FILE 201 130614SANTA FE (03:27)]
Raven: Requesting Stargate SIT REP.
Trigger: We found them. Asset validation complete. ET mission complete 140 hours.
Raven: Copy that. I’m going in. Initiate target acquisition.


                                                                                                                                      Chapter One

   The worst thing about living in the Land of Enchantment is that it hardly ever lives up to the promise of that name. When we first moved here I thought there would be actual magic, like the sky might change color at my command. A nighthawk with my father’s voice would teach me all the secrets and show me how to fly. Even though New Mexico looked mostly like desert, I figured that was just a clever disguise. The magic was hidden, but I would find it.

Seven years later, well, The Land of Enchantment sounds great and sells a lot of T shirts, but the magic is hard to find and slippery when you do. There are enchanted spots, if you know where to look, and when the sun sinks into its fiery cauldron of color every evening I almost believe. But controlling the skies and the animals, flying wherever I want to go? I can still only do those things in my dreams, and since Mom still won’t let me get my driver’s license, the only flying I’m doing is on my bike.

Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Yours in the Light
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

Dear Roberto,

Do I start this e-mail with “Dear?” It feels a little intimate for someone I’ve never met before. Or perhaps a little cold for someone to whom I intend to disclose my deepest darkest secrets.

I’m not much of a people person, which is why this setup is perfect for me. It’s not that I’m not good socially. In fact, I’m quite good. But I’m also tired. And the very act of locking eyes and finding the perfect words, of saying the right thing and not saying the wrong thing, it drains me. There are no backspace keys in life, but there is one on my keyboard.

And anyhow, I am, by nature, a writer. It feels fraudulent to say when, in reality, I’m a failed, failing, writer. But I heard someone say once that if you want to be a writer, you should say you’re a writer. Claim it. And so I do (though obviously not without the necessary disclaimers, and never, ever publicly).

I see the first prompt says to discuss what brings you to therapy. That’s a ridiculously huge question, don’t you think? Can’t we start with something smaller? Like, tell me about your childhood. Ha! Just kidding. Is there literally anything more exhausting than attempting to summarize one’s childhood?
So what brings me to therapy? I guess I’ll give you a simple answer to an entirely too complex question.

My daughter Kira.

You see, her best friend’s Grandma died recently and, as children do, she had questions.

Secret Agent #9

TITLE: THE CHALCEDONY TRAP
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Two hundred years after the drought began, on the bone-dry steppes just east of the Idylls, a tiny blue bottle lay in a patch of brown grass. Its surface sparkled in the morning light until the movement caught a young shepherd’s eye.

She was out scouring the ground below the Mountain Road for lily roots to boil for breakfast. She scooped up the little vessel. She fiddled with the opening. But the bottle’s red stopper was stubborn. When the shepherd ran her knife around it, the blade could get no purchase.

The girl rolled the bottle across her palm and smiled as the summer sun played magiclike with the facets cuts into it. How fine it would be to keep it! Yet the truth of the steppes, where second chances were few and far between, was different. Fine objects like this were meant to get sold.

So, that she did, and for a great sum, too. A passing tin trader laid out four whole copper florins for it, and in this way the bottle began its journey across the empire, bringing each new seller more money than the last. First, a water merchant bought it for thirty copper florins, and then a linen trader for a few coins more, until far from the steppes, in a bustling market city, a glazier by the name of Serra Bernar Tomas exchanged the bottle for a mere thirty silver florins.

Secret Agent #8

TITLE: The Sweetfern and the Juniper
GENRE: YA Contemporary Romance

Katy Compton was trapped at the top of a Ferris wheel. Although that would have been an apt metaphor for her life at the moment, she really was stuck high up in a rickety metal cart, and she really didn’t want to be. To make matters worse, her mother had struck up a lively conversation with a family in the cart below them. Katy slumped against her headrest and pulled a well-worn notebook from the pocket of her overalls.

She traced the pressed daffodil on the cover before flipping to the section for the current summer. She made a heavy mark in the box for “carnival” and glanced through the rest of the list. Plenty of things to do, and no one to do them with. The only thing she had any hope for was the last one: “high school.” Life was going to change for her this fall, she was sure of it.

All she had to do was change herself first.

“Why aren’t we moving?” Katy’s mother asked, nudging her and breaking her out of her thoughts. “Do you see anything going on down there?” Katy looked, but she couldn’t see down to the control panel, and trying to lean out made her dizzy.

“We’ll probably start going soon.”

Apparently satisfied, Katy’s mother leaned back over the edge of the cart to continue talking. Katy put her book away and gazed out over the crowds.

Secret Agent #7

TITLE: Season of Evernight
GENRE: MG Fantasy

The glossies arrived in Violette’s apartment every Sunday. A great stack of stories, scandal sheets and the latest fashions from Paris, Violette devoured them with a dish of sugared madeleines. Every so often she would lean across to Mena, pointing at a photo or an advert, sugar dusting her lips as she spoke in hurried reverence.

Violette adored Sundays. No school and her best friend Mena's company, she baked trays of madeleines for them both. Sometimes she chose to dip the madeleines in chocolate, sometimes with a tang of lemon curd, but always a little sugar dust - to make their Sundays all the sweeter.

‘Have you seen this one, Mena?’ Violette asked, trailing a finger over the butterfly wings adorning a girl in one of the glossies. The colours were a weave of yellows and greens, lilting at the tips in golden splendour. ‘That girl is the cat’s meow.’

Mena hunched over, whistling low and they both giggled, as if sharing a secret. No one dressed like that yet, not in Pensilva anyway, but Violette knew they were on the edge of something quite wonderful when she gazed at the glossies. She was more than ready to take that leap.

Violette’s apartment was a small shabby place, all crooked and worn like an old leather boot. She had lived there with her mother for every moment of her twelve and three quarter years

Secret Agent #6

TITLE: Panic
GENRE: Adult women's fiction/general fiction

I can’t breathe.

The chatter swirls around me like physical waves, pushing and pulling, dragging me in unexpected directions with the force of a vicious undercurrent. I stagger to my feet. My right knee buckles. I suck in a breath, and hold it, waiting.

My legs turn to unstable, gelatinous, sticks of nothingness. I take a tentative step forward, expecting my trembling legs to collapse. Surprisingly, I remain upright. My eyes bulge under a sudden, enormous pressure. My vision swims out of focus.

I can’t breathe.

A tight pain lands in my chest, my breathing is weak and shallow, my head spins. I grip onto the bar counter to steady myself. The barman is looking at me. He slides me another WKD. I wrap my sweaty hand around the cool bottle and press it to my flushed forehead.

I can’t breathe!

I stumble away from the bar, backing into someone, and mutter an apology. The bar is thick with cigarette smoke that has wafted in from outside. The DJ in the corner is moving to his beat. Everyone is talking, laughing. I wince against the noise and push through the stagnant crowd.
Outside. The glare of the evening summer sun makes me squint. Everything is intensely bright. Sunbeams bounce off cars and metal drains and windows in buildings making everything twice as bright. The reflections become an army of piercing laser beams that seem to attack my skin, making it sting and prickle, and make me wish for an old-fashioned shield and some sunglasses.

Secret Agent #5

TITLE: LETHAL IMPULSE
GENRE: Adult Suspense

Weeds of guilt thrived in Neil Caldera’s heart from the day he killed her. Another Saturday evening visit to the bar and grill in Madison, Georgia, brought no relief. The rattle of ice in glasses, clinks of bottles and endless chatter equaled a similar place he frequented when he lived in New York City. One more reminder of the killer this former detective pursued and the young woman killed by a bullet from his weapon. That was the last time Neil confronted anyone for criminal behavior.

Neil leaned on his left forearm and picked at the mahi-mahi. He set the fork aside, rubbed his face. He propped on his elbows and peered between his fingers. Every face expressed some semblance of enjoyment except two—his and the man wearing his shirt tail outside his jeans at the front door. The man crossed the dining room front-to-back. He moseyed by Neil at an angle. A bulge showed beneath the indigo shirt at the left hip. An odor of cigarettes trailed him.

A second twentyish male in a black hoodie sauntered in and propped on the corner of the bar. The newcomer faced the front windows.

The forty-year-old waitress strode to the table at Neil’s head tilt.

“Ready for dessert?”

He rose to his feet. “Trip the silent alarm and act normal,” he whispered. “Will you do that for me?”

“Yes.”

“Call nine-one-one to confirm the alarm when you get to the kitchen.”

Secret Agent #4

TITLE: To The Bones
GENRE: MG Historical

           “Stay here,” I said, and flipped the lead rope around the post. Boomerang snorted and twisted his ears. “Now wait a minute.” I pointed at my mule, right between the eyes. “We have a deal. Don’t you forget it.” Boomerang bobbed his head. “And wish me luck.”

           Straightening myself up tall, I took a deep breath, and tamped the pockets of my vest. My sketchbook was there, nestled safe. The breeze twirled away a billow of dust and I glanced up, the skin on my arms prickling. Not a cloud in sight to temper the stifle. Well. No more putting off. Straightening my hat, I took a deep breath, then marched up the steps and through the swinging door of the Como Station train depot.

            My boots clicked across the planks. Keep them in a steady, confident rhythm. But not too fast. Don’t want to seem desperate.

            Mr. Simms in Medicine Bow had told me to come out here looking for work, that there was plenty of pack hauling to do in these parts. He’d smirked a little, which made me wonder, but I really needed the work, so I’d come. To a train station in the middle of nothing.

            I reached the ticket window, my heart thumping like jackrabbits. A man with thick black hair stood at a counter in the room behind, sifting through papers. He didn’t look up, so I took off my hat and cleared my throat.

Secret Agent #3

TITLE: Ruin of Souls
GENRE: Adult Thriller- Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance

Beautiful Dreamer, wake unto me.

Everyone with narcolepsy can feel the Shadow and the Shadow can feel each and every one of us. So, I kept my head on a nervous pivot, watching every angle and blind corner of the cemetery. I’d slipped into the hypnogogic state, the stage between waking and sleeping, three minutes ago and the clock was ticking.

“Something’s touching me!” My voice rang hollow against the headstones. The hot, spongy breath of the graveyard hung above our heads like a sodden blanket. Its misty tendrils reached for our necks like ethereal nooses.

“Mel, you have a six-foot perimeter. Nothing is touching you,” Josh assured me, but I pointed to my foot and his sharp, gray eyes dropped to the cable slithering across my sandal.

“Son of a b****! Matt!” Josh’s voice grated across my nerve endings. Ordinarily, I liked the low rocky tumble of testosterone in his voice. It matched his muscle-corded arms and his wide-shouldered frame, but tonight it pulled at my peace of mind. We were all on edge. Something was wrong with the cemetery.

Matt dropped the cable he had been dragging across my foot and I kicked it away without looking at it. I could already hear it hissing to life. The cool rubber had warmed to soft serpent skin. I knew it hadn’t transformed into a real snake, but the hallucination triggered the same razor slice of adrenalin. All four members of the Ghost Towne Investigations team knew not to touch me.

Secret Agent #2

TITLE: The Mechanical Cosmic Seed
GENRE: MG Science Fiction, A fairy tale retelling

Chapter 1-Sabatoge

Jackie suppressed the urge to glance at the clock a second time as she waited for the perfect moment to launch her cunning plan, and not even rolling nausea or the spaceship's bumpy descent would extinguish her drive of going through with it.

To keep her composure, she squeezed her eyes shut and released a slow breath as her brother, being a jerk as always, piloted her beloved Milky Way. Just wait—in a few minutes, his smug smile would be replaced with blood-curdling screams. Best. Sound. Ever.  

She tapped her toes along with the blinking of dials desperate for her finesse. Piloting Milky Way came to her like second nature, and yet, without her behind the wheel, all she could do was bide her time and buff the fingerprints from the dash until just the right moment. Malik and Mom didn’t honor the ship like she did. In fact, they treated her like a hunk of metal instead of family. But she didn’t feel this way. Piloting Milky Way gave her life purpose. Her plan would at no time put her baby in danger, but instead, Malik would have to admit that she, Jackie, could be the one and only master of Milky Way.

Her insides fluttered with the longing of regaining control of the ship. She’d give Malik one last chance to give her command the civil way before holy-haywire began.

 

 

Secret Agent #2

TITLE: The Mechanical Cosmic Seed
GENRE: MG Science Fiction, A fairy tale retelling

Jackie suppressed the urge to glance at the clock a second time as she waited for the perfect moment to launch her cunning plan, and not even rolling nausea or the spaceship's bumpy descent would extinguish her drive of going through with it.

To keep her composure, she squeezed her eyes shut and released a slow breath as her brother, being a jerk as always, piloted her beloved Milky Way. Just wait—in a few minutes, his smug smile would be replaced with blood-curdling screams. Best. Sound. Ever.

She tapped her toes along with the blinking of dials desperate for her finesse. Piloting Milky Way came to her like second nature, and yet, without her behind the wheel, all she could do was bide her time and buff the fingerprints from the dash until just the right moment. Malik and Mom didn’t honor the ship like she did. In fact, they treated her like a hunk of metal instead of family. But she didn’t feel this way. Piloting Milky Way gave her life purpose. Her plan would at no time put her baby in danger, but instead, Malik would have to admit that she, Jackie, could be the one and only master of Milky Way.

Her insides fluttered with the longing of regaining control of the ship. She’d give Malik one last chance to give her command the civil way before holy-haywire began.

Secret Agent #1

TITLE: OFFICER NEEDS ASSISTANCE
GENRE: Adult Thriller

Josh Anderson had endured the worst Thursday morning ever—then, evening catapulted him into the eye of a sh** storm.

A knot on the back of his head throbbed in contempt. Several incapacitating minutes passed before he eased his bulky frame onto wobbly legs. He propped against a kitchen island, rearranged the cockeyed suspenders of a compression brace, and smoothed his polo shirt over the worthless device. A current of electricity, from two herniated discs, ricocheted up and down his spine like a rogue elevator. His feet rooted to the floor, paralyzed by maddening spasms. He couldn’t lift his arms and it hurt to breathe.

How long was I conked out?

A few puzzling beats later, Josh spotted a woman sprawled near the piano and the dark goo puddled on the hardwood. He knelt beside her, slid two fingers into place, and felt a thready carotid pulse. The woman’s swollen mouth skewed to one side. Her wide eyes stared at him in haunting fear. Josh used a pen to fold away blood-soaked waves of salt and pepper hair glued to her face so he could inspect the gnarled gashes. He surmised the trauma had been caused by the bent four iron tossed nearby.
Josh knew the woman—Piper Alston, an insurance claims agent at Charleston’s Lansing Group.
Worse—he recognized the four iron from an old set of Callaway’s he kept in his trunk.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Alston.”

Thursday, March 28, 2019

STORMRISE Cover Reveal



I'm undone by the beauty of this artwork. And so thankful.

And yes, that's a blurb from TAMORA PIERCE. Which is one of the most humbling and breath-stealing experiences of my journey thus far.

The full blurb: 

“A bold girl, a kingdom under attack, magic everywhere―I devoured it in one sitting! This book is one wild ride!” ―Tamora Pierce

Sometimes I feel my heart will burst.

(And other times, I need intravenous chocolate. But this is not one of those times.)




Monday, March 25, 2019

Secret Agent Contest Early Info

Please note: This is NOT the call for submissions! The contest will open next Monday, April 1.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES (please read carefully):

*To enter, please use THE SUBMISSION FORM HERE.
*THIS WILL BE A LOTTERY: The submission window will be open from NOON to 6:00 PM EDT, after which the bot will randomly select 50 entries.
* PLEASE NOTE: You are responsible for figuring out your own time zone. "Time Zone differences" are NOT a reason for not getting your entry in.
* Submissions received before the contest opens will be rejected.
* Submissions are for COMPLETED MANUSCRIPTS ONLY. If you wouldn't want an agent to read the entire thing, DON'T SEND IT. If an "entire thing" doesn't exist, you shouldn't even be reading these rules.
* You may submit A DIFFERENT MANUSCRIPT if you've participated in any previous Secret Agent contests in the past year.
* Only ONE ENTRY per person per contest. If you send more than one, your subsequent entry(ies) will be rejected.
* Submissions are for THE FIRST 250 WORDS of your manuscript. Please do not stop in the middle of a

GO HERE to submit via our web form.

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

This month's contest will include the following genres:

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


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fun Little Twitter Contest

Hey, folks!

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

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

Here's the tweet:


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

I'll choose and announce the winner on Friday!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Secret Agent Contest on the Horizon!

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

Mark your calendars if you write the following:


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


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

Ask your questions below, or poke me on Twitter!

Monday, February 25, 2019

REPOST: Battle of the Critiques

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

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

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


Battle of the Critiques

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

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

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

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

I see you nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, my head kept spinning.  Counterclockwise, rapidly.

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

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




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

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

I had no idea what she meant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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