Monday, May 27, 2019

Drop the Needle -- Critique Guidelines

Last time, I didn't set up submissions as a lottery, and the slots filled up with several hours to go. This time, I decided to create a lottery so that wouldn't happen again--and we only got 7 entries!

I guess you mustn't have many angry characters. ;)

At any rate, this gives us an opportunity to really home in on these seven entries and give them lots of juicy feedback. Please offer your best to help your colleagues become the best writers they can be!

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

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

Drop the Needle: ANGER #7

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

This is on Saturday night, after Gabby doesn't contact CJ for days because she's been told by someone untrustworthy at school that he's using her. 

I pull on the door handle, step back and cross my arms. “What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, Gabby, nice to see you, too.” CJ jams his hands into his jeans’ pockets and lifts his shoulders. “What’s going on? You don’t respond to my texts or calls. You haven’t even attempted to talk to me for the last two days. First, I thought you were sick, but you would’ve at least texted me. At least I would hope so. What gives? Why are you ignoring me all of the sudden? Did I do something I’m not aware of?” His stony gray eyes burn a hole in mine.

I glance past him into the night, avoiding his pointed glare, an ache throbbing in my chest.

CJ takes a step closer and stops. “Can I come in? Please? Maybe you can tell me what’s going on.”

I nod, leading him into the family room and take a seat on the sofa. CJ shrugs off his coat and sits on the chair across from me, resting his elbows on his knees. “Talk to me. What’s up? Is it because of what happened last Saturday at your race? Because I talked to Asha? Gabby, I’m only trying to help, make sure you’re okay. I was so worried about you.” He drops his gaze to the floor. “Especially when you passed out at the finish. I’m sorry if I talked to Asha and your parents about it, but I was worried about you. Scared.” He shakes his head. “Sorry, I keep saying that, but it’s the truth.”

Drop the Needle: ANGER #6

TITLE: Never Say Never
GENRE: YA YA Romance

When we got home, Mom was sitting on the living room couch, waiting for us. 

“Never do that to me again,” she said to me, her voice flat.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know if she would give me another reason to scare her that way, to keep me from wanting to come home. I stomped up the stairs and slammed the door.

The yelling started. First Dad, pissed off that Mom had exposed me to this in the first place. Then Mom, complaining about raising me all on her own while he traveled, and that I grew more and more distant and angry. Then Dad, who complained about a whole host of things, differences in parenting, Mom putting pressure on me to be however she wanted me to be. Mom said Dad was too lax with me. Dad said she wasn’t who he married. Mom said she missed when he was fun. Dad laughed bitterly at that.

All the while, I sat on my bed, my arms wrapped around my knees, fervently wishing I could disappear. After a while, the words started to blur together. Dad’s bellow and Mom’s shriek blended together into cacophonous noise. I clapped my hands over my ears.

Anger started in my center and spread like a black hole, a violent force that crushed everything it came into contact with until I was all gone. I twisted with the emotion, screaming into my pillow, kicking my mattress, sick to fucking death of every nasty word spoken in this house, of the feeling that I should have done something to fix them, of how damn little I could actually do about it. The impotence of it dissolved into tears, cutting hot trails down my cheeks.


Drop the Needle: ANGER #5

GENRE: YA Thriller

This scene is just before the MC’s stepfather brings the family home from an outing.  What they don’t know is that he intends to lock them away forever.


“Get in,” he says.  “All of you. I’m taking you guys for a treat.”

            And we do get inside the old pickup truck that’s been our transportation forever. The seats are torn in places, the front smells like stale beer.  My mother doesn’t even seem to smell it—it’s not her thing, to register something like that or comment.  Everything with her, eyes, ears, nose, are always focused somewhere else, so she can smell, hear, and see things we can’t.  In her head, locked in the pages of the fantasy novels she keeps stuffed on the shelves in their bedroom.  

            The ice cream shop is on Main.  Cleo and I watch as it gets closer, a small glass-fronted building with a candy-striped awning.  Half a dozen kids are licking cones on the sidewalk outside.  The truck picks up speed, then shoots past them in a spray of gravel that leaves some of them covering their faces or looking, stunned, at the cones they’d dropped on the sidewalk.  We turn and watch, Cleo and I, and Cleo says, “I thought we were going to stop.”

            “Do you deserve ice cream?” He says from the front.  I don’t know how he can hear us, except that he’s death and, presumably, death hears everything.  I don’t know how to answer—did we do anything that would mean punishment, even punishment by omission?  

Drop the Needle: ANGER #4

TITLE: Kingdom of the Keys: The Initiation
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Lead-in: The morning after learning that the book left by his elderly friend is a portal to an invisible realm, twelve-year-old Adam visits his neighbor and confronts him, struggling with underlying feelings of abandonment by a father he's never known.

“You knew but didn’t tell me?” Adam huffed. “How could you do that?”

Mr. King didn’t respond, but the circles under his eyes spoke of his exhaustion and his eyes told of a great sadness. Adam ignored them.

“Why would you leave and not tell me how it works?” He stomped to the kitchen table and fanned the book’s pages. “Must be nice someone cared enough about you to give you a heads-up, so you never wrote in it.”

The accusation shot out like an invisible blow. Mr. King flinched but remained silent.

“Fine! Don’t talk.” Adam slammed the book shut. “Just sit there, drink your coffee, and let your stupid orchids keep you company!” He marched to the door.   

“Adam . . . ” The weak plea traveled across the room. “I did not know how to explain the book to you. It was willed to me when I was just a boy.” 

Adam turned but only enough to see that his neighbor was still speaking to his cup. 

“Would you have believed me had I said something?”

Adam’s jaw clenched. He probably wouldn’t have believed the book was a portal. He would have thought the old man had gone senile. But that didn’t matter. Mr. King had stirred up feelings so painful, it was just easier to be angry.

“I don’t know if I would’ve believed you,” Adam snarled and grabbed the doorknob. “But we’ll never know because you didn’t care enough to stick around and try.”

Drop the Needle: ANGER #3

TITLE: Windcaller
GENRE: Adult Fantasy

Tlanis, a member of the lowly clayshaper caste, has been falsely accusely of theft. naShola, a noble woman with many secrets, has tried and failed to prevent his arrest.

They were calming discussing responsibilities and culpabilities while Tlanis crouched in the dirt, his face caked with blood. naShola wanted to scream, to crack the earth beneath them, to call down lightning and burn them all to ash. She clenched her jaw until she felt the bones might break.

“As for you, clayshaper,” enSureth declared, striding toward Tlanis, “your fate shall be kinder, perhaps, than you deserve. No unnecessary torment. The hanging will be at noon. A quick death. Then we shall put this all behind us.”

Tlanis met naShola’s gaze. Blood dripped from a shallow gash in his forehead. There was a bruise around his eye. But his mouth was a steady, fearless line.

She could barely keep standing. “Why did you do it?” she whispered.

He didn’t even blink. “I didn’t.”

naShola’s frown deepened. “What do you mean?”

“Come, my girl,” enSureth said, taking naShola’s arm firmly. 

naShola struggled as he pulled her away from Tlanis. “Wait. Let me go; I want to know --”

“Take him to the platform,” enSureth called to the guards. His grip grew tighter against naShola’s writhings. “I shall be there momentarily.”

“Let me go!” naShola had given up all pretense. She didn’t care what it meant for her prestige or place among the nobles; she didn’t care that enSureth was the prince who owned nearly a quarter of the Plateau. She elbowed him in the stomach, kicked his shins, clawed his arms. He let out a holler of pain and finally released her.

Drop the Needle: ANGER #2

TITLE: The Bug Collector's Bucket List
GENRE: YA Contemporary

K.J. and Becka,18 y/o cousins, have grown up hating one another thanks to a long-time dispute between their mothers. After their grandpa dies, he asks them to fullfill his bucket list (to get their inheritance). Things have come to a head at Yellowstone.


My reaction is automatic. I shove her away, forcing her to stumble several steps backward.

   Her eyes widen in surprise and then quickly narrow. “You. . .” She doesn’t finish the insult but shoves me back with an amazing amount of force for someone her size. 

    “Hey!” I yell. Anger flashes through me. I’m suddenly back in the sixth grade, having it out with Charlie McDonald, the bully of bus number nine. I push Becka back with everything I’ve got. This time, she squeals as she loses her balance and teeters close to the edge. But with cat-like reflexes, she manages to duck down and recover her balance. As she squares up at me, the look on her face is murderous. Okay, maybe I went a bit too far that time. I open my mouth to apologize, but before I can say a word, she draws a fist back and throws a punch which lands just below my left eye. 

    Specks of light cloud my vision, and the world around me spins. Now I’m worried I’ll be the one to fall into the acid water. “Son of a. . .”

    “Girls!” Johan yells, and he’s suddenly between us. He places a steadying hand on my shoulder. “Stop it.”

    I hold the injured side of my face while Becka looks half-mortified, half-triumphant. The rest of our group stands there, gawking at us like we’re circus freaks. No one says a word. Guess they didn’t see that coming. 

    But shit, neither did I. 




Drop the Needle: ANGER #1

TITLE: Kites in the Storm
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Context- Dev's brother has just been consumed by his gods. Dev hid in a corner while they did it, afraid, ignoring his brother's cries for help. Now he's angry and ashamed. The gods prey on fear, so his anger is the only thing keeping them away.

He kicked and screamed into the void, anger burning through his veins. He wanted to destroy something, hurt someone. But there was no one in the cell besides himself.

So be it.

Dev began banging his head against the door, punching its cold, hard metal with fists bunched up tight. Screaming in frustration, he kicked at the walls, again, and again, with as much force as he could, until he felt slick, sticky blood between his toes.

But the rage was dimming now. Its flame was leaving him, and without it was only darkness. He tried to grab hold of the anger, slamming his fists half-heartedly against the wall, but it slipped his grasp, and after a long, dreadful moment, it winked out.

Awareness flooded into his body, and with it, overwhelming fear.

No. Not this.

He had to fill the emptiness with something, something to stave away the darkness, to keep the fear at bay. For in the fear they waited, beckoning, and in the fear waited a truth that could not possibly be true. He couldn't let it be true. In the darkness waited madness.

But the anger was nowhere to be found. It had all leaked out of him, leaving him cold and clammy and shivering.

What else?

Dev became aware of a dull throbbing in his left foot, where his big toe was. He knelt down in the darkness, probing at the toe with eager fingers.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Friday Fricassee

Friends, I finally made it to England.

The above picture is, of course, at Stonehenge, where we were able to take a magnificent, after-hours tour inside the boundaries.

Being so close to something so ANCIENT is a bit breath-stealing.

Most of our time was spent in London, city of our dreams. I'm going to share a lot more about my trip in my June newsletter, so be sure to subscribe if you haven't already!

Being the geeky debut author I am, I brought along a galley of STORMRISE so I could photograph it in all the places. Here it is in Hyde Park:

And, no, I didn't care one fig about who saw me or what they were thinking. Younger-me would have been too insecure to walk around London taking photos and selfies with a book. Older-me? Couldn't care less. I was having the time of my life, not only celebrating a wonderful, dream-come-true vacation with my husband, but also celebrating the realization of my publishing dream.

I'm so thankful. There are no words to describe the breadth and depth of my thankfulness.

In other, less international news, submissions are now open for Monday's DROP THE NEEDLE critique round, and will be open until 7:00 pm EDT. The submission guidelines are HERE.

And, finally, I was thrilled to receive an email a short while ago from my publicist, letting me know that STORMRISE has been included on PUBLISHERS LUNCH's YA Buzz Titles for Fall/Winter 2019.  It's hard to describe what it feels like to be included on a list with names like Ruta Sepetys, Brandon Sanderson, and Veronica Roth. 

This is all so new and glorious and I tend to get completely derailed from what I should be spending my time on, which, right now, is story planning. Partly I need to give myself grace--this is, after all, an experience I've never had before, and I need to allow myself to revel and gasp and stare and become distracted. But I also need to learn to take a (very) deep breath and get back to the work at hand. Which is what I'm getting ready to do right now.

No, really.

Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart and soul and big toes, for sticking with me during this journey. 

I collectively thanked you all in my acknowledgements, by the way. Because HOW COULD I NOT?

Have a lovely weekend, and I'll see you Monday for DROP THE NEEDLE!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Critique Round: Drop the Needle

It's time to drop the needle and read excerpts from anywhere in your (completed or WIP) novel!

For those of you who are new to this term: "Drop the Needle" was an inhumane way for college music professors to test us to see if we knew the piece and composer. It's much harder to identify something you don't know well if you don't start at the beginning!

We're going to make things easier for our readers, though, by including a brief lead-in to each scene, to help ground us in the moment.

The focus of the scene: ANGER

Anger has so many forms--explosive, slow-and-burning, vindictive, righteous, stuffed-deep-inside. Show us a scene where your character is expressing ANGER.

Here are the submission guidelines:

*To enter, please use THE SUBMISSION FORM HERE.
*THIS WILL BE A LOTTERY (because last time submissions filled up pretty quickly): The submission window will be open from NOON to 7:00 PM EDT THIS FRIDAY, after which the bot will randomly select 25 entries.
*Send a 250-word scene that displays ANGER in one or more of your characters.
*IMPORTANT: Include a 30-40 word lead-in to set the scene for us.
*Only ONE ENTRY per person per contest. If you send more than one, your subsequent entry(ies) will be rejected.
*250 words is the maximum, not the requirement. Please do not stop in the middle of a
*Posts will go live on MONDAY (May 27) for public critique.

GO HERE to submit via our web form.

Ask your questions below! (Or on Twitter. I'll see them more quickly there.)

Thursday, May 2, 2019

First 100 Critique Guidelines

Okay, folks--here we go!

The focus is on VOICE. Do the first 100 words of these stories draw you in? Do they have that certain "something" that makes you want to read more?

And if not, why not?

Please offer your best feedback to help your colleagues become the best writers they can be!

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.

First 100 #25

TITLE: Before I Leave You
GENRE: YA Contemporary

It’s always so damn cold.

Bone-chilling, actually, for so many reasons. The thermostat Dad keeps on zero degrees, my "lack of meat on my bones” as his nosy paralegals would say. But this is the kind of cold where I can see my breath when I exhale, like I’m outside in January and not in my foggy bathroom, getting ready for the first day of school. It's a cold that makes every hair stand on end. That sends shivers through every part of me.

Only one reason for that kind of cold.


First 100 #24

GENRE: YA Fantasy

I killed the first handmaid. I left the second one alive because Princess Marna doesn’t know how to take off her own gown. I’d help poor Marna untie her corset myself—I’ve done it too many times before—but I’m the one with the knife in her hand.

“Watch the hem, Princess,” I say with a flick of my bloody knife, ushering her behind the changing partition. Princess Marna startles, red curls slipping from her-half finished updo, and gathers her pretty, pearly skirts so they won’t drag in the blood puddle oozing from the slit in the handmaid’s throat.

First 100 #23

TITLE: Strange Gods
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Of all the places he could have made his move, in a silent cafeteria surrounded by counselors was probably the least romantic. Mostly because all Spooky could do was freeze and hope no one noticed. Hornets and butterflies swarmed in her stomach as Luke took her palm in his. She didn’t know if she liked his hand on hers. She only knew she didn’t want to get caught with it there.

But then his touch was gone, and in its place, a piece of paper. Spooky’s eyes shifted to the closest counselor, but no heads turned. No one had noticed the exchange.

First 100 #22

TITLE: The Charley Chronicles
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Dead Aunt Gert’s house was full of eyes. True felt them watching as she followed Mom up the massive stone steps of the looming structure. The silent sentinels stared down through the misty night air and dared her to enter.

The porch light flickered, and Mom’s arms and legs stuttered like an old silent movie. True shivered and concentrated on lugging her heavy suitcase up the never-ending stairs. She just wanted to go back to their tiny apartment.

‘Welcome home, True.’

She drew in a quick breath. That ghostly whisper was just in her head, wasn’t it?

First 100 #21

TITLE: The Bea Team
GENRE: YA Contemporary

I like the way a piece of material takes shape into whatever I want—a tank top, dress, pants, or a skirt, the possibilities only limited by my imagination. And there’s the type of material from cheap cotton to expensive silk, although most of my creations tend to be on the cheaper side, like Lulu’s dress.

“You know you could make more money selling your pieces instead of someone else’s,” Lulu says, unwrapping a chocolate Lollipop. “I’d give you a million bucks for this little number.”

I smile. Lulu’s concerned more with how the dress makes her look.

First 100 #20

TITLE: Princes Charming
GENRE: Adult Fantasy

The blind girl trembled in the corner as Gertrude raged over her.

 “Tricked!”  she snorted, though her snorts were akin to what one would hear from an enraged stallion.  “Outsmarted by my own contract.”  She continued to pace; the blind girl counting her steps both to keep track of where the witch was and to calm her mind, keep the panic at bay.

    The steps stopped.  The blind girl cowered further down, though she could almost feel the air parting as the witch’s hand descended toward her head.

    “One must deal with what is in front of one,”  she said

First 100 #19

TITLE: Isabel Slate Makes the News
GENRE: MG Contemporary Fiction

I slide the last copy of my newspaper into the Smite’s birdhouse mailbox and click the little door shut. When I look up, C.K. Spicer, the cool new kid at Francis Mott School, is riding his bike up the sidewalk. Even sitting on his bike, he’s tall and skinny like a stretched out rubber band.

C.K. slams on his brakes, missing my left foot by half an inch. I want to walk away, but I can’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he annoys me.

"Hey, Isabel, I’ve never heard of an animal listening to a baseball game.”

First 100 #18

TITLE: Standing Too Close
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The bell rings as I’m emptying my locker. After so many years, I’m conditioned, and I jump, ready to slam the door closed and run to class.  Second period is bio and the lab’s upstairs in the school’s new wing.  I have to hurry if I’m not going to be late.

But I don’t hurry.  Because I don’t need to worry about being late to bio or to French or English or any of my other classes anymore.  As of ten minutes ago, I’m no longer a student of Milton High School.

First 100 #17

TITLE: Hyperbole
GENRE: NA Science Fiction

Without a fresh clue, someone else is going to die.

My fourth cup of coffee is still warm in my mug. I’ve had one for every hour we are into Nox Diem, not that they’re doing me much good. I’m desperate to stay alert. Twenty long hours of suffocating darkness remain this cycle. The work around me has ceased. The other detectives left hours ago, winking out one at a time like extinguished candle flames, trading a frustrating lack of progress for the oblivion of sleep.

My desk is a mess of reports, binders, and photographs, which I comb through. Again.

First 100 #16

TITLE: Elite Justice
GENRE: Adult Mystery

According to my ex-husband, I had mastered what was commonly referred to as Resting Bitch Face. This came in handy when dealing with unruly children - my own, suspects at work - I’m a Homicide Detective, and overly talkative new gym members - I loathe people when I’m on the treadmill.
With RBF firmly in place and brightly colored earbuds wedged into my ears to discourage conversation, newbies with the misfortune to hop on a machine next to me and attempt such were quickly shut down when faced with my glare up close. No shame, I’d been known to make gang members weep.

First 100 #15

GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Worlds around her would explode if she touched the spinning orb and stole a life back from the Reaper. But since that life belonged to her best friend, nothing else mattered.

Crew accelerated, chasing Reagan’s egg-shaped vessel in an oblong orbit over Earth’s northern hemisphere, the duo mere minutes away from completing their ninety-ninth mission. Concentration gripped her shoulder blades and burned down through her fingertips. Energy flowed through her mind more than concrete words or commands.

To finish the mission, she just needed to find and destroy the traitors badge. And for Crew, admittedly a little trigger-happy, destroying was the best part.

First 100 #14

TITLE: The Legacy Project
GENRE: MG Historical Fiction

     We sat in the front pew, Mr. Bailey's casket so close, I could almost hear him breathing. If he were alive, that is.

     "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away," the pastor said from the pulpit.

     Mama sighed and rubbed her round belly. The baby was due any day now, and she had grown tired of all the comments. On our way into church, a lady had said, "Oh my, you look like you're about to pop!"

     "Any day now!" Mama laughed politely. But when we were out of earshot she whispered, "And she looks like she ate too many pancakes this morning."

First 100 #13

TITLE: Reviving Abby
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Don’t look up.

Whatever you do, zero in on the text.

Keep reading.

Ignore the curiosity urging you to lift your gaze. 

Resist it, that tingling sensation creeping up your shoulders, stiffing your neck, goading you to pull your eyes away from the writing.

Control it.

Keep reading. 

Focus on the words.


I read the lines for the hundredth time, trying to stick to my inner voice’s recommendation. At least, that’s who I think that is. It sounds like me (...)

First 100 #12

TITLE: Valeria
GENRE: MG Space Opera

              The oval door slid open and Valdor Noxum, an intimidatingly tall man with a permanent scowl on his face, entered the hospital room. Dressed in a red-trimmed black suit and vest, he strode along the velvet-carpeted floor past the stone fireplace set in the wall. He reached the base of the staircase shortly after that, two gentlemen wearing suits standing on either side. They knelt onto one knee and gazed upon the floor.

              “My Liege…” one murmured.

               “Your Highness…” murmured the other.

First 100 #11

TITLE: The Woodsman's Rose
GENRE: Adult Historical Romance

Breakfast was never a formal event in the Donovan home, but since four of the siblings had moved on, it sometimes seemed quite staid. Today, though, as Daniel padded down the stairs from his room, the conversation emanating from the kitchen was more animated than usual. He pushed through the swinging doors and poured his first cup of coffee while his youngest brother expounded on the merits of his pony.

“Dad, she’s too small. She’s a kid’s horse!”

His father made no response. His mother worked at the stove, her bright red hair curling wildly in the heat and humidity.

First 100 #10

TITLE: Truth in the Treetops
GENRE: YA Contemporary with paranormal elements

Sweltering heat bakes my skin as I shuffle along the narrow path, the hot breeze offering no relief. I uncap my water bottle and chug the last drop of tepid liquid. Eight miles at cross-country practice and now this, plodding home in a sauna. Ugh
Through the bushes and tall, leafy oaks, I follow the steep descent of the hill, my throat parched, sweat trickling down my back. What I wouldn’t give for a bucket of ice water to douse myself with.

“Hey, what’s the rush, Gabs?” Asha, my bff asks, shuffling behind me. “Slow down.”

“Sorry, it’s just so freakin hot."

First 100 #9

GENRE: MG Magical Realism

It’s all in the B. How you attack that first note tells your audience everything about what’s to come. Quasi improvisando, Dvorák says. You need to put your life into it. You need to show that you can be wild, fanciful, dramatic, free.

Basically, everything I’m not.

I’ve done a masterful job of faking it for half my life—ever since I took up the cello at age six. Scales, etudes, Bach preludes, Boccherini concerto, Brahms sonatas… I’ve never looked back. My technical skill astounds even the most talented of musicians. Because of it, I can manufacture the rest.

First 100 #8

TITLE: Lily Silverclaw
GENRE: MG Fantasy

In the dark of the moon, while young and old lay sleeping sound, Lily Silverclaw ventured out of the burrow and into the night.

She popped her head above the burrow mound and glanced left and right across the prairie. Nobody there. She eyed the guard pacing along the top of the tall, stone Wall that surrounded the prairie dog town.

Time to move. Lily scrambled out and scurried from bush to bush. She whirled around to make sure no one had noticed her leaving—because that would be a disaster—and rammed into another prairie dog.

First 100 #7

TITLE: River City Demons
GENRE: Adult Fantasy

Three guys walked into a bakery. One of them wanted a beignet.

The counter-girl froze, her grin going from humor to horror in an instant. She was a student working part-time, and she knew trouble when she saw it. She knew it as schoolyard fights, bullies shaking down nerds, or her dad drinking too much and realizing he was this total douchebag loser, a moment of personal self-awareness that meant someone was going to get hit. It was the same vibe here in her bakery, the three walking in, the other three at the counter eyeing the newcomers.

First 100 #6

TITLE: Lifelines
GENRE: MG Magical Realism

The barbecue was about to start, the guests were on their way, and one of the birthday girls was missing. The rest of the family hadn’t noticed, caught up in party prep, but Mel had been alert for signs of trouble. She wove through the bouquet of balloons at the front door to check the living room, the dining room, and all four bedrooms, before finding her twin curled up in the oversized recliner in the home office. Rae hugged her knees to her chest, staring at a window that had its blinds drawn.

First 100 #5

TITLE: Boy On The Corner
GENRE: YA Horror

I’d arrived a few minutes early to the Rosewood Mall. The only thing to do in Roan Oak other than cow tipping.

I lingered outside of what could’ve been my second home; the buzzing, neon glow of the arcade. Not letting my twitchy legs get the best of me as I waited by the archaic wishing well. Trying not to make eye contact with anybody, shrinking into myself so people wouldn’t notice me. Squeezing out of the way for a young couple pushing along a pink-cheeked baby in a stroller decorated by stuffed pumpkin toys. I pressed against a potted plant.

First 100 #4

TITLE: Tesseract Cats
GENRE: MG Science Fiction

Fresh blood, on newly fallen show, doesn’t look like it does on television. It isn’t a bright, shiny, red like in a lipstick ad. Or on a Coca-Cola bottle. Or a stop sign. And because it’s warm, the snow melts under it. And sinks. Like a fast running river cuts through sand.


First 100 #3

TITLE: The Silver Lining of Chaos
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The Texas sun bakes me to a crisp outside Stony Point Academy. Aunt Lucinda’s late, and I’m the only student left on campus. I pace the sidewalk, antsy. Having to rely on my aunt sucks, but she’s the only family I have left. An ache settles in my chest. I miss my grandmother so much, and I’m not sure what my hurry is to leave school. There’s nowhere for me to go. Drained and desolate, I melt into a puddle of sweat beside my two tattered suitcases and backpack. They hold everything I own.

It’s hard not to feel homeless.

First 100 #2

TITLE: Beckoning Shadows
GENRE: YA Paranormal Suspense

The air is thick with the threat of rain as I step out of the County Courthouse’s cold, stone-encased lobby. My head is spinning with thoughts as dark as the heavy clouds. “This can’t be happening,” I keep telling myself as I slip into my Mustang convertible.

I watch my mom, Scarlet, in her dark forest green tunic that deepens the auburn in her chestnut hair; her black leggings and matching heels accentuating her long shapely legs as she stumbles to her red Grand Am. Her eyes are glazed over in shock or fear; I’m not sure. I know I'm feeling both.

First 100 #1

TITLE: Liked
GENRE: Adult Contemporary

This is my first funeral.

Glass half-full, it’s not mine.

Glass half-empty, I killed the guest of honor.

Obliterated may be a better description.

But here I stand. Thirty-six with two kids even Satan wouldn’t admit to fathering, squeezed into size fourteen pants riding so far up my a** they should come with a complimentary canary to certify the air is breathable. The sweat rolling off my body like a high-speed assembly line isn’t helping.

My hips beg for a sixteen.

Who am I kidding? Eighteen.

I should consider myself lucky I’m not being fit for an orange prison jumpsuit.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

First 100 Critique Round--Submissions Are Open!

Read the submission guidelines HERE.

Enter your first 100 words HERE.

UPDATE: All 25 slots have now been filled. Thank you for your interest!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


I've stared at them long enough, and now I'm ready to give one away.

Enter below to win a signed ARC of STORMRISE! (And I hate to say this, but no international entries, please. Shipping is, sadly, cost prohibitive.)

The winner will be announced on May 6 -- the day before I leave for London!

STEP ONE: CLICK HERE to subscribe to my newsletter--easy-peasy!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

(CLICK HERE to subscribe to my newsletter--easy-peasy!)

Monday, April 29, 2019

Coming Up: In-House Critique!

Ages ago, I hosted a 50-word round, where entrants had the opportunity to see if their first 50 words could draw readers in.

I've decided to double that to make the focus more about VOICE than about HOOK (though, a good voice is undeniably a good hook).

So here's what's up:

1. This WEDNESDAY, submissions will open at noon EDT and will close at 7 pm EDT.
2. Submit the FIRST 100 WORDS of your manuscript HERE.
4. I will accept up to 25 entries. No lottery.
5. This critique round is open to ALL genres and categories EXCEPT erotica/erotic romance.
6. Entries will post on Thursday (May 2) for public critique.

Remember: This is about VOICE, the ever-elusive thing that's hard to teach but easy to spot (because it really does draw us in). If you'd like some honest feedback on your work, this critique round is for you!

If your entry is accepted, please be sure to critique 3 other entries, as your way of giving back.

Any questions? Ask them below!

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.


For 1-5, I’d like to request full manuscripts attached in an email to, 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, 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!


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.


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.


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

GENRE: MG Contemporary

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

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

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

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.”


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

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 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

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.


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

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.