Friday, July 3, 2020

Friday Fricassee: Cover Reveal!

I'm beyond thrilled to share with you the cover of THE STOLEN KINGDOM, which releases on March 2, 2021.

I COULDN'T POSSIBLY BE HAPPIER WITH THIS COVER!




About THE STOLEN KINGDOM:

A secret bloodline. A stolen magic. A fight for the throne.

For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a cacao farmer's daughter, has no idea her hidden magic power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king's second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir--and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

You guys! This book means more to me than I have time to express--we'll save that story for another day. THE STOLEN KINGDOM is available for preorder wherever books are sold.

Please be sure to add THE STOLEN KINGDOM to your Goodreads to-read list!

 The Stolen Kingdom

Thanks, as always, for all your support. I know the blog's been quiet since April, but things'll stir up again soon. We've got another Secret Agent Contest slated for August! More on that soon.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! (Also? Please know how much it means to me to hear from you. Leave a comment, drop me an email, give me a shout on Instagram or Twitter. Let me know what you're writing, what you're reading, how you're doing.)

Hugs!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

April the Twenty-fourth

My 12-year-old bookworm


This Friday is my birthday. It's also the 7-month anniversary of the release of STORMRISE.

I suppose it's more usual to note a 6-month anniversary, but March passed by in a bit of a blur (as I'm sure it did for most of you). So here I am, a month late but no less grateful.

September 24 wasn't supposed to be my release date. Originally, STORMRISE was slated to drop on September 10, which was when I'd planned to have my big release party. To say that I was upset is an understatement; all I could think about was the party and all the people who said they'd be there and how many months in advance I'd booked the venue. Not to mention the fact that I wanted to have physical copies to sign for people.

Everything worked out just fine. Tor Teen made sure early copies were there, and they even crafted me a gorgeous poster, to make up for the fact that my release party was no longer my actual release day.



(The poster lives in my office, propped against the wall. I still haven't figured out a way to hang it up without damaging it.)

It's been an interesting seven months--I've swung from the heights of elation to the depths of disappointment and back again. I've watched STORMRISE wend its way into the storm of books-clamoring-for-attention, holding my breath and reminding myself not to read any review less than 3 stars. (Seriously, it's not worth it. Some people are going to hate your book no matter what, and there's no reason to go all imposter-syndrome every time someone rips into your writing.)

These are the sort of comments that have kept me afloat:


  • Loved this book! It sucks you in and before you know it you've read the last page.

  • It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. This is a fantastic story in a style reminiscent of Tamora Pierce, which is high praise!

  • The best Mulan style story I have read.

  • A fantasy retelling of Mulan WITH DRAGONS... need I say more? I loved this.

  • Alanna meets Mulan. How can you lose?

  • STORMRISE offers a lesson to young readers, especially in this age of hate crimes and violence, that you can make a difference, and you can make your voice heard, and even though you are not “the mainstream normal”, you are powerful, and valid. You matter. All you have to do is do the thing.

Thank you, reviewers. It might be that you don't realize how your words fuel confidence when it lags and creativity when it dwindles. You may not know how much it means to an author that her words moved you. It's a privilege to speak into people's hearts and imaginations, and it's a gift every time they let you know.

So, what have I learned in seven months?

I've learned that writing the next book after your debut is hard. And that writing the one after that is even harder.

I've learned that people may buy your book in October and not read it until March. And still love it.

I've learned that libraries are more wonderful than I'd even known.

I've learned that the fan art of eighth-graders feeds my soul.

I've learned that I absolutely love book signings.

I've learned that the release date of a debut novel comes and goes--a blip on the timeline of my life. And that I've got to continue looking ahead.

I've learned that it's really (really really) hard sometimes to feel like a tiny fish in a boundless sea.

I've learned that following my dream was absolutely the right thing to do.



Huge thanks to each of you who has purchase a copy of STORMRISE. For those of you who are audibook fans, I'd like to gush once more about the amazing Renee Chambliss's incredible narration and encourage you to borrow the audio edition of STORMRISE from your library or purchase a copy for your own collection.


What's next? THE STOLEN KINGDOM (which has shown up on Goodreads and Amazon over the past couple of days -- super early, but whatever!) has an official release date and a stunning cover, and I'll be sharing both of those when the time is right. (Or, yanno, when my publisher says, "You may share the cover now.")

Keep dreaming, writers! And more importantly, keep writing. Talent is nothing without practice, and a dream is nothing without work. 

Hugs and chocolate to all!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Secret Agent Winners!

And here are the winners:

#8 INTO THE MAZEWOOD
#34 SEAMUS OROURKE AND THE SUMMER OF SWAMP FOOT
#37 A VERY STRANGE ENCHANTED
#38 THE EVER AFTER AND OTHER BROKEN THINGS

THE PRIZE:

Ms. Hunter would like to see the first 50 pages of your manuscript! Winners, PLEASE EMAIL ME AT FACELESSWORDS@GMAIL.COM FOR SPECIFIC SUBMISSION INSTRUCTIONS.

Congratulations, winners! And a huge thank you to EVERYONE who participated.

Secret Agent Unveiled: Kristy Hunter


Heaps of thanks to our lovely and helpful Secret Agent, Kristy Hunter of The Knight Agency!

Kristy's bio:

As a graduate of Vanderbilt University and The Columbia Publishing Course, Kristy Hunter began her publishing career in New York City—first as an editorial intern at Bloomsbury Children’s Books and then as a book publicist at Grove/Atlantic and Random House Children’s Books. When she moved to the agenting side of the industry, she was closely mentored by Deidre Knight, president and founder of The Knight Agency, and her first co-agented project sold at auction soon after. As an associate agent, Kristy enjoys being able to bring a unique perspective to her clients thanks to her diverse publishing background. When she’s not curled up with a fantastic book or manuscript, she can be found kickboxing or hiking with her dog.

What Kristy is looking for:

Right now, I’m looking for that perfect escape read—something that pulls me in and doesn’t let go. This can be a fun-filled mystery, a deeply atmospheric story with hints of magic, an upbeat rom-com, a family saga with deep-rooted secrets—anything. Just transport me to that world (and make sure it’s middle grade, young adult or adult!).


Winners forthcoming!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday Fricassee

There's been enough banter about the current situation and how challenging/frustrating it is to be stuck at home trying to sort out fact from fiction and to adjust to our new (temporary) normal. So I won't engage.

I will say this, though: Terrible situations always end up producing good things--even if they are small things, or things that are only important to you. (You matter, so it counts.)

Examples from my own life:

1. TERRIBLE THING: Life shut down and everyone is stuck at home.
2. GOOD THING: We are having sit-down family dinners like we haven't had in years.

1. TERRIBLE THING: My editor at Tor Teen was laid off.
2. GOOD THING: My new editor and I have "clicked" -- and she loves my book!

1. TERRIBLE THING: The School of Nashville Ballet closed its doors weeks ago, directly affecting my ballerina daughter, who normally has class 4 days a week.
2. GOOD THING: They've just added adult ballet to their online offerings, and I took a class on Wednesday morning.

And on it goes. I would encourage you to take note of the good things that have come your way amid the fear and frustration and utter strangeness of our collectives worlds.

As for the Secret Agent Contest:

I'm happy to see thoughtful critiques showing up! KEEP IT COMING! The Secret Agent (who has already shown up--have you seen?) will continue to leave feedback over the weekend, and you may do so also. The Secret Agent will be unveiled--and winners announced--on Monday.

Thank you to all who have participated!

And finally, some book news, since I haven't talked much here about it of late:

1. Parnassus Books in Nashville, while closed to the public, is taking and shipping orders. They still have a few signed copies of STORMRISE (though I will not be able to personalize, due to the current situation), so if you'd like one, PLEASE GO HERE NOW TO ORDER.

2. THE STOLEN KINGDOM now has a gorgeous cover and an official release date! Please be sure to SUBCRIBE TO MY NEWSLETTER and follow me on social media so you don't miss all the reveals as they happen. (INSTAGRAM , TWITTER)

Thank you all for continuing to hang out here at Miss Snark's First Victim. I'll see you on Monday!


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Secret Agent Contest Critique Guidelines

It's actually been quite a while since we've had a Secret Agent Contest!  For those of you who are new to the blog (hi!!), you are warmly welcomed to offer your critique on as many of the 50 entries as you would like.

Here's the way it works:
  • Once the 50 entries have posted, all readers may leave critique in the comment box of each entry.  
  • While the critiquing is going on, our Secret Agent will appear and also leave feedback--for ALL 50 ENTRIES!  This is great not only for the folks who entered, but for everyone who takes the time to read through to see how a literary agent responds to various opening pages.
  • Next Monday, I will post the identity of our Secret Agent AND the winning entries

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: From the Dirt Sea
GENRE: Adult Mainstream w/hint of magic

For years nothing had grown in the neglected dirt lot Leia called a backyard, and she had no idea why anything had sprouted now. A little green bud surfaced dead center in the brown expanse, standing out like a marble in riverbed. Leia leaned over it, careful not to topple on top of it as her hangover clouded her sense of equilibrium. Probably a weed. It’d been a rainier winter than her valley desert town was used to, but even then, her yard had been exceptionally resistant to life through every other heavy soak. This weed must possess fortitude far beyond her negligence.

Instinctively, she went to sip at her coffee and remembered that she’d yet to make any having been so distracted by this new, planty development.

Po, her bad-mouthed chihuahua, yelped at her from the back door, unwilling to step foot on the cold patio yet desperate for breakfast all the same.

“Coming, you little shit,” she said, though this did little to soothe him. It wasn’t until the food cascaded into his plastic bowl that he quieted long enough to scarf it down, as if he hadn’t eaten in days. It hadn’t even been a full twelve hours since his last meal, to which the vet would complain again about his weight, but the vet wasn’t the one living with the mouthy little beast.

Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Big Bright Thing
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

I was standing by my car, waiting for my shift to start, when this lady came up and said, “People are allergic, you know. You should be more careful.”

It took me a second to figure out what she was getting at. But then I stuffed my bag of peanuts in my backpack, rubbed my greasy hands on my shirt and said, “Maybe I’ve got a death wish.”

“What I meant,” said this lady, who was probably some mom of one of my high school classmates, “was that you’re about to go into that restaurant,” (ha! Imagine calling Freezer King a restaurant), “and touch people’s food. What if they’re allergic? They could die.”

“Maybe I’m an assassin.”

“I should talk to your manager.”

“I am the manager.” This wasn’t totally true. Kevin was the manager of the dinner shift. I was only the manager after seven, when he went home to put his kid to bed, and I was stuck working the register and the fro-yo machine.

“I hope you don’t work too late. I assume you’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Assassin training school.”

The lady shook her head and walked off. She pulled a keychain from her pocket, and it held so many keys, like she was a jail warden. A lot of people must have trusted her with their stuff. I only had three keys- my house, my car, and the Freezer King.

I didn't know what that woman was getting at asking me about school.

Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Evernight
GENRE: YA Fantasy

The fae believe the ability to lie is a curse. I disagree. In my line of work, there is a certain benefit that comes from everyone believing me when I say I am not going to kill them.

My name is Raegan and I am an assassin by trade, not by choice. Sometimes, we must resort to doing that which we are good at. Sometimes, we have no choice.

In the throes of the restless crowd, I move lightly, my hands pressed into my pockets lest I brush against another. The brand on the inside of my elbow burns like ice. I clench my fists, eyes tracing the hordes of fae surrounding me like a sea. Most are Unseelie, their bodies swathed in cloaks like mine, bright eyes shrouded by hoods and tattered scarves. Many carry goods, armfuls of spells, some with carts, some with cages. Others are residents of the Autumn Court. I bow my head, passing sylphs with ochre-russet skin and hair of deep green, burnt umber.

A flash of a golden blade makes my head whip around.

He might as well send up a flare for all the difference it would make in this crowd.

Missile to target, my eyes fix on a figure a dozen paces ahead. He lurches forward then flinches back, cringing out of the path of an errant arrow some idiot has fired through the crowd. For a Seelie spy, he is not so subtle.

Secret Agent #47

TITLE: SASHES AND SABOTAGE
GENRE: MG Upper LGBTQ+ Contemporary

The spotlights warm my skin before racing across the faces of fifteen girls standing center stage. They grab each others’ hands. Their ballgowns sparkle, sending rainbows dancing over the audience. Girls from all over Elmore Township competed at other pageant optionals to get here. Now is the moment when one girl wins and the rest pretend they don’t want to strangle her. I hold my breath. It’s so quiet, a fly buzzing behind me sounds like a lawnmower.

Then someone in the audience giggles. And another. Within seconds, laugher echoes off the walls. The girls’ eyes dart back and forth, smiles frozen. My grin grows wider as I squeeze the velvet curtain before rushing down the stairs and back to my front row seat.

So, okay. I might have the teensiest bit to do with what’s happening. Competition in the twelve to fifteen age group is fierce this year. Someone has to take matters into her own hands. I can’t count on my best friend to do everything on her own.

A girl wobbles as one shoe falls apart, and I pat myself on the back. That right heel was super hard to saw through. Another sniffs at the smoke drifting above her head. Oops! Note to self: Don’t mess with curling irons, Caz. We want to win, not catch the competition on fire.

I study my best friend, Britt. Her frizz-free hair rests on her shoulders as she balances on even-heeled hot pink dress shoes.

Secret Agent #46

TITLE: Who Pours Out Vengeance
GENRE: Adult Magical Realism

This is a story about revenge. Gather around, dear reader, as I open with the inciting incident: a murder.

Saphrina Loresmeth, blissfully unaware of her impending demise, pulled her car over to take a phone call. Though the country road was deserted, she always turned on her flashers and her protective charms. With a flick of a button, a shimmering blue shield formed around the car. Since someone had mixed salt into the thaumaturgical tank, it wouldn’t block so much as a leaf falling off the scraggly trees. I told her so, but she couldn’t hear me.

“Lilvia?” A bone-deep exhaustion filled Saphrina’s question. She’d cried so many times over the last few days she had no tears left, only fear that the last person returning her calls would abandon her. “Should I…not come over?”

“Nonsense,” Lilvia Cathor said fiercely. “If Pollin breathes a word of objection to your presence in our guest bedroom, he can sleep there himself.”

Saphrina said, “I don’t want to cause you any marital disharmony.”

Lilvia said, “You know how much I owe you. During my son’s illness… Now it’s my turn to repay you.”

“Then what’s happened?” The muzzy heat coming off her vinyl car seats made Saphrina’s head pound. Her greasy hair clung to her forehead, as she hadn’t showered since being thrown out of her home. Now yet another problem? The sunrise cast over the grass lining the road gave it a sickly yellow color which matched her desire to throw up.

Secret Agent #45

TITLE: Wish I Was Here
GENRE: YA Mystery

The bell rang and I jolted upright, my thoughts scattering along with the notebook and pen on my desk. Someone behind me snickered, but I was used to that. I took a moment to reorient myself to clase de español. As usual I’d been day dreaming about this one guy I know. Or used to know. Sort of. Whatever.

I sighed, collected my stuff into my bag, and filed out of the classroom with my fellow sheep. In the hallway, students were gathered in clusters around their lockers, but I kept moving. Someone spotted me and said, “Hey, Ana. Where were you last period? The moon?” I glanced over as another kid spun his finger near his ear.

When are they going to grow up?

At an intersection, Isaac fell into step beside me, his sandy blond hair flopping over his green eyes. He pushed it aside, only to have it fall back again. "How many?" he asked.

“Just two a minute ago. For a while I thought today would be a shut-out for you. How’d you do?”

“I think Brad was feeling nostalgic. He tried to trip me, but I hopped over his foot.”

“Nice.” I held up a hand. He slapped me a half-hearted five.

“Then Jim asked if I remembered to bring my pocket protector.”

“How kind that he’s looking out for you. Or, at least, your shirt.”

He gave me a weak smile.

Weird. He was normally more entertained by our classmates’ poor attempts at bullying.

Secret Agent #44

TITLE: The Girl In The Picture
GENRE: YA Paranormal Thriller

My part in this story starts the day I found a box of pictures in a creepy room in an abandoned house in the North Country. It was a story that started before I was born and it is a story that deserves to be told. I’m not even sure I’m the one that should tell it and I only hope that I can do justice to what happened this past summer.

Now I wasn’t some creeper out snooping around abandoned houses for no reason. I was there for a very specific reason. I wanted a car. When you live in a wasteland of strip malls, Targets and Chipotles, not having a car made you either an outcast or a leech. I didn’t want to be either of those and my parents refused to buy me a car. But, one day, in the middle of June as I was studying for finals, my old man came to me with an offer: if I worked for him for the summer, he would match me dollar for dollar so I could buy my own. He had already offered my best friend, Marlon Jefferies, a job too, so I’d have company. But I hesitated. I knew he wasn’t going to give me a cushy job in the air conditioned office. I knew I’d be out on the road with one of his crews.

My old man is locally known as the King of Junk. You might have seen him on TV.

Secret Agent #43

TITLE: Ardent
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

The mere possibility that the cougar was in Cassidy’s vicinity gave her a shiver of exhilaration, although it wasn’t clear who was stalking whom. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter, and the cat had inherited its otherworldly ways from its mother, just as Cassidy was born with the earth medicine secrets of her grandmothers. Plagued by questions with no answers, she knew that seeking her mother’s spirit cat was the only solution; she had come to the Slender Forest to present herself. The time had come.

Nothing felt right anymore. Everything that had been the basis of her existence had altered, in both subtle and obvious ways, until she woke unsure of what to expect from each day. For seventeen years, she had followed the seasons—the stars, sun, and moon. She had mimicked only her mother, with no other role models to confuse her sense of how to proceed. Growing up in the wilderness had offered endless opportunities for hunting, fishing, and spending time alone. But while the young woman’s unique character shone relentlessly, it had never caused her angst and longing. Until now.
The Slender Forest bordered the river, eventually succumbing to the cliffs that towered over the landscape. Her steps fell on familiar ground. In fact, her mother walked the same path every morning, before the sun crested. Celia Waters would scramble up to the lookout, along with her spirit cat, to welcome each day.

Secret Agent #42

TITLE: THE GOOD LUCK FIX
GENRE: MG Contemporary

I stare out the family room window, fixated on the road, like the dog next door on his chain. Here comes a car. I perk up. It’s coming, coming.

Nope. Not Dad.

I frown in the direction it goes, pressing my nose on the glass and fogging it up with my breath. Across the street, Dion’s dad is backing out of their driveway. Dion waves at me through the window of the backseat. I wave back.

Another car comes. Also, not Dad. I know he’s probably stuck in traffic on the bridge or near the tunnel and it’s not his fault, but still. My heart sinks.

“Katelyn?” Mom calls from the kitchen. “You’re gonna be late. Want me to run you over?”

“No,” I say. He’ll be here. But seeing Dion pull away with his dad makes my eyeballs sting because if Dad were here, still living under the same roof as us, this part would be easy. We’d be on our way to baseball.

That was before Dad moved out months ago.

Now he’s sleeping at Uncle Joe’s, he says because it’s closer to his work. My parents think if they don’t tell me what’s really happening, I won’t be upset, but I know what’s really happening. They’re gonna split for good.

I need to figure out a way to stop it or fix it.

A good luck trick will help. I know it. But I need a really good one, which is why I haven’t decided on one yet.

Secret Agent #41

TITLE: Death's Daughter
GENRE: YA fantasy

This entry has been disqualified; it was query instead of a first page.

My apologies for not catching this sooner.

Secret Agent #40

TITLE: Redefined
GENRE: YA Contemorary

Most seniors didn’t stay home on a Friday night to babysit their mom. I did.

I was chopping tomatoes at the kitchen island, helping Billie finish dinner. Dad hired her to take care of Mom during the day, but she also liked to cook for us, a definite bonus. Billie’s cooking tasted almost as good as Mom’s used to. Almost.

Dad called at six, one hour before the football game Em and I had been looking forward to all week. We’d waged our last battle against the SAT monster, and I’d written college application essays until the glare of my laptop made my eyeballs burn. We deserved a night out, even if it was just a Keene County football game.

So when my phone hummed on the counter, and Dad’s picture appeared on its screen, I kept slicing tomatoes.

Bzzzz. Bzzzzz.

Billie glanced at me over the top of her glasses. “You gonna answer that?”

“Fine.” I accepted the call and tucked the phone between my shoulder and my ear. Dad started talking before I finished saying hello.

“Catherine, I’m in the ICU waiting for lab results on a patient.”

I held the paring knife in midair. “You’re not coming home.”

“Not for a while.” His words wrapped around me, tight.

“I wanted to go to the game tonight.”

“I’m sorry, Cat. I’m tied up. I need you to stay home with Mom.”

I glanced at my mother, sitting in her wheelchair with her head dropped to one side.

Secret Agent #39

TITLE: My Murder Year
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The new jeans have that fresh-out-of-the-bag smell. I breathe it deeply before unfolding them and laying them across my bed. Oh, yeah. They’re perfect. I step into them, squirming to get the stiff fabric up over my thighs. I have to lie down on the bed to get the zipper closed, but once it is, I can’t help but love how the dark denim hugs my body. Why have I never had skinny jeans before? A glance at the clock tells me I need to get a wriggle on, so I throw my favorite T-shirt on over the jeans and allow myself one last admiring glance at my reflection. Damn, I look hot.

The familiar scent of coffee and toast greets me when I enter the kitchen. Teddy sits in his usual spot at the table, inhaling what looks, from the milk puddled around, like his third bowl of cereal. My stomach flips. I don’t know how anyone eats so much in the morning.

“Good morning,” Mom says, turning away from the blender and the bilious green liquid churning inside it. “Would you like some super-shake?”

I glance across at Mama K who takes advantage of Mom’s attention on me to dump her glass of swamp-water into the sink. She catches my eye and gives an almost imperceptible shake of her head. Her glossy black hair flies around her face for a second before settling back into her short, blunt bob.

Secret Agent #38

TITLE: The Ever After and Other Broken Things
GENRE: YA Contemporary

We have to get rid of almost everything.

I know that, I do, yet here I am back in the lawless warehouse attached to the St. Vincent de Paul donation center and resale shop, chasing an over-permed woman named Bonnie around tables heaped with Beanie Babies and old waffle irons, begging for access to the boxes Kenzie and I dropped off yesterday.

Because we aren’t getting rid of everything. That might have been easier, striding into the Arizona sunset with nothing at all. Like this is the movies, and Mom and I can trust the world to unroll like an enchanted carpet in front of us because we’re the protagonists and we already did the hard thing—the hardest thing. When we get to the starting-over part, it’s supposed to get better.

I think that’s how the story goes.

“It’s a really thick old book,” I say. “Hardcover, no dust jacket. Faded red fabric with a gold title. Fairy Stories-something-something.”

“The morning volunteers have all gone home. I got here at one o’clock and I haven’t seen it, but—” She swirls a blue-veined hand at the chaos around us.

My and Mom’s story goes like this: we’ve had four weeks to figure out exactly how much of our life we can afford to haul across the country and how much we can afford to leave behind. Mom went back to work in June, because Doing All the Things is how she deals, which means it’s also how I need to deal.

Secret Agent #37

TITLE: A VERY STRANGE ENCHANTED
GENRE: YA Fantasy

While illusion was the circus’s mainstay, three truths tethered Quinn to reality: corsets were torture, cosmetics hid a person’s face but not his guilt, and Jaq would reject the Menagerie’s invitation. Yet some tenuous hope had him trying all three anyway.

By the time he found his tentmate—swigging from a flask by a hoop dangling from a tree—the words filled his chest, his mouth, gritty like gunpowder and burning.

“I’m moving forward with my Queenie performance,” he announced, and sighed. The gunpowder turned back to butterflies. Swirling.

A match snicked.

Jaq expelled the accelerant. Fire whooshed.

Quinn closed his eyes against the blast of heat and coughed delicately.

“And the world will see you as you truly are: visionary.” Framed by the blazing hoop, Jaq’s eyes caught the firelight—feverish, like she’d been birthed by flame.

And she thought he was melodramatic. “Yeah, and eyebrow-less, if you don’t watch it.”

Jaq scoffed.

“Also, the Menagerie’s having dinner tonight,” he said. “We’ve been invited.”


She spat out the residual. “You were invited. You should go. They like you.”
“Rina asked after you specifically.”

“A kind gesture. The kind that doesn’t mean anything.” Jaq crouched by the tree and searched through a bag.

Quinn sidled closer. “They were your friends not that long ago.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“Jaq.”

She shoved a newspaper at him. “Got that from the capital. It’s today’s.”

His hand, and the paper, dropped to his side. He was sick of reading the news. Nothing good ever came of it.

“Quinn.”

Grimacing, he unfolded the paper.

Secret Agent #36

TITLE: The Gentleman's Farm
GENRE: Adult Romantic Comedy

I can still leave. No one would know. Except me. The thoughts sounded desperate, although not as desperate as the reason why she was there in first place.

The admission kept Mika rooted in place. Time ticked by. Sweat pooled in uncomfortable places.
She glanced at the clock affixed to the outside of the bank. One fifteen. She’d been ten minutes early and now Earl Beckett was fifteen minutes late. Having decided it was the first day of her new life, Mika had only had a banana for breakfast and a caramel latte for the drive. Okay, and a muffin. A small muffin. She wasn’t sure if it was the last meal of her old life or the first meal of her new one.

  The power outfit she’d painstakingly chosen the night before no longer  made her feel powerful.
Now, the band of the skirt dug into her stomach and the shoes weren’t as comfortable as they were when she strutted up and down the aisle of the shoe store. Her bangs were in need of a trim, falling over the top of her glasses and obstructing her vision. She felt like a kid playing dress-up. Not to mention that the five hour drive had worked wonders on wrinkling everything and making her feel like day old nachos.

The rumble of the beat-up truck announced its presence long before it turned the corner. It was an old white truck, covered more with rust spots and dirt than with paint.

Secret Agent #35

TITLE: THE RIDDLE OF THE SECOND BORN
GENRE: MG Light Fantasy

Shivering in my pajamas, I whispered Mom in counts of eleven. My fingers wriggled in rhythm as I completed the sequence. I inched open my parents’ bedroom door, hovering in a moment of possibility—Mom sleeping, ready to wake and turn my twelfth birthday into the best one ever.
Moonlight peeked through the blinds, reflecting onto the neatly made bed. A scent of furniture polish added to the unused air. My bubble of hope popped, leaving a sour taste at the back of my throat. Such an idiot to think she’d be here after a year of absence.

I hugged my arms tight and crept toward the bedroom I shared with my big sister. Nora had her own space until Dad brought his friend Emily into our home last month. He figured we needed a live-in nanny while he traveled on business. Emily’s son, Tony the Terrible, got Nora’s room. According to Dad, having a boy my age living with us would be fun.

He was wrong about that. And wrong about Emily caring for us. Last time I woke her before the alarm screeched at seven, she banned my dog from sleeping on my bed. Emily’s superpower? To create the worst possible punishments.

I sneaked past her room, moving like a shadow, the wooden floorboards sticky under my bare toes.
Not silent enough to fool my dog. Peggy’s good-morning dance exploded into the predawn calm, her thumping tail banging in joyful beats against the wall.

Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Seamus O'Rourke and the Summer of Swampfoot
GENRE: MG Mystery

I slammed the back door of Aunt Aiofe’s house as hard as I could, sprinted across her yard and ducked into the woods.

“Seamus O’Rourke, get back here right now!”

I ignored my sister. Just because Bailey was the oldest didn’t mean she could be the boss of me. She wasn’t going to stop me from exploring the humungous rock I’d discovered in the woods behind Aunt Aiofe’s house. I called it Big G, and Big G was like a deserted island in the middle of a mass of trees. Perfect. Because that’s where I was going to spend the day, away from Bailey, who hated the whole world and everyone in it. Including me.

Besides, Aunt Aiofe had said that kids these days didn’t play outside like she used to. She’d be proud of me when she got home from work, because outside was where I’d be. I wove around trees and leaped over fallen trunks, until I busted into the clearing, scrambled to the top of Big G and settled on the moss that topped it like a green wig.

Secret Agent #33

TITLE: White Water Sacraments
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Kensington Pier looked like a dead land. Just the way Aleera liked it.

She grinned and dropped from the merry-go-round, landing with ease. Her boots barely made a sound as she dashed toward the Ferris wheel. Springing over the gates, she scaled the beams as if they were mere stepladders. With a heavy pack slumped across her backside, her legs slinked through the metal bars like a wiry feline. The daggers strapped to her thighs and waist remained unmoving in her haste. She moved like the wind — silent, swift, sometimes fatal. In one final weave through the webs, Aleera swung her body upward and landed onto a swinging cart.

Mere hours before, city folk filtered in and out of the lit-up carnival strip. They munched on deep fried treats and caramel coated popcorn. Blending with the night, Aleera had watched the children scurry up and down the shoreline, splashing water and building sandcastles. Now closed and deserted, debris blew across the ashen pavement and strings of dangling bulbs hung depleted of light. The eeriness of the vacant strip sent tingles down Aleera’s spine.

That’s when she heard it.

A screeching whistle. A slight rumble with the winds, rustling leaves and rippling the nearby lake. Nature had nothing to do with such sounds and they certainly  come from Aleera. She smirked and hummed a melody as the eerie sounds leveled off around her.

“Oh, c’mon.” Her whisper, a low rasp. “Don’t hide. We haven’t even begun to play.”

Secret Agent #32

TITLE: Mimic
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Getting past the Protector was mostly a matter of timing. The time of day, first of all. Dusk. After most of the sunlight was gone but before the torches were lit. Then the trick was to slip by at the exact moment when someone else was passing through the gate, while the Protector was occupied with drawing blood from the next one in line.

The form Issa chose was also crucial. She had gotten through a few times in the guise of a very small child, so far below eye-level that the Protector never saw her as she toddled in the wake of someone’s billowing cloak. The stubby legs, though, made it harder to move quick and smooth. She couldn’t afford to stumble and be caught. Last time it had been too close.

The other likely choice was taking on a fleet-footed limber form, a body that could scale the wall in the space of a single breath. Issa hadn’t dared that before. She’d practiced leaping the lower walls at the outer edges of the Den for the past month, and Yeril swore her swift movement was hardly visible if he wasn’t watching closely. “No more than a flit in the corner of my eye,” he told Issa with an arthritic wink. She almost believed him.

She’d already wondered and worried too long, resolving every evening that this would be the night, only to lose her nerve and slink back from the wall.

Secret Agent #31

TITLE: CAMPBELL'S BOY
GENRE: YA Historical

“Here you go, lad. It’s a wonder your teeth don’t rot right out of your head!” Mr. Ware said leaning over the counter with a grunt and a fistful of penny candies for Emmet.

Emmet bared his teeth into a big grin like he had seen horses do, revealing his fine set of pearly whites seemingly in no danger of rotting any time in the near future. Mr. Ware chuckled and ruffled the top of Emmet’s unruly mop of blonde hair. “You are something, aren’t you?”

Emmet half skipped, half hopped out of Ware’s Mercantile, the bell on the door jangling as it closed behind him. Outside on Market Street, Emmet looked up and down the expanse of dirt road that made up the heart of commerce in the town of Colusa, California. Mid-day, Colusa slumbered with most inside for their noon meals.

He sniffed at the lack of activity with the exception of a lone rider and began to make his way due west. Buildings on Market provided shade on one side and the relentless California sun on the other. Across Market lay an open square where a courthouse was being built and where he sometimes picked around the building materials for treasures.

Kicking the dust of the road up underneath his feet, he clutched the penny candies tightly, his reward for running to the postal service for Mr. Ware. He could almost taste the sweets melting in his mouth. But not yet…he would wait until he got to the tunnels.

Secret Agent #30

TITLE: If You Squint Really Hard
GENRE: MG Contemporary

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 dress Mama had made me wear was itching the heck out of my armpits and cutting off all blood flow to my upper body. Apparently wearing a dress on Sunday wasn’t enough, I had to wear one to the funeral too. It was “out of respect,” Mama said. But what about the respect for my arms? That’s what I wanted to know. And not only a dress, but lace? It was like she didn’t know me at all.

“Mama,” I leaned over, “are my arms turning blue?” I said, wriggling and tugging at my sleeves.

She narrowed her eyes and put her finger up to her lips. “Shhh!”

I shuffled in my seat, and peeled my sweaty legs away from the shiny, wooden bench with a slurping noise. Slurp. Slurp. Slurp. Penny glared and Mama shushed me again.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” the Pastor said from the pulpit. The church filled with sniffles, and someone blew their nose so hard, for a second I thought a trumpet was playing a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. Why was everyone so sad? John Bailey was the oldest man I’d ever laid eyes on. Sure, he was nice and all. He was that guy who gave out root beer barrels to the kids around town. But he was old. Really, really old.

Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Camp and Chaos
GENRE: Adult Romantic Comedy

The coffee shop’s bell chimed savagely as Elle swung the door wide. She wanted to rip its high-pitched heart out. Okay, so, maybe it was a tad dramatic but, in her defense, she was in desperate need of caffeine before heading into the belly of the beast (a.k.a. her office).

Huh? Beast Master. Maybe that’s what her title plate on her door should read instead of Assistant Camp Director. After all, what else would you call yourself when you work with rambunctious elementary schoolers all summer long?

Shuffling between her fellow customers, Elle scanned the names of the mobile orders sitting on the counter. Not ready yet. She retrieved her phone from her pocket and scrolled the numerous messages from her assistant, all concerning the inflatable rentals scheduled to be delivered that afternoon but would instead be arriving Sunday when no one was working.

Elle chewed her bottom lip for a moment. Without fail, chaos reigned over her schedule the closer they approached opening day but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. She hastily sent off several replies as well as her promised ETA when the door’s bell signaled more business for the shop. But it was the loud rumble of laughter which caused her blood to freeze.

Oh. No.

Her traitorous body knew the sound of that particular deep rubble as every nerve stood at the ready. She hesitated before turning to confirm what she knew in her soul. “Oh, fork me.”

Javier Sanchez was back in town. S***.

Secret Agent #28

TITLE: When We Were Friends
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction High Concept

As Frannie Willets drove west across the state, she wasn’t lucky enough to be swallowed by a sinkhole or washed off the road by a spring flood, so there was no way to avoid this reunion after all. Still, she blew right past the diner where Lexi, her ex-partner in crime, waited. She parked two blocks down Main Street and climbed out of her beat-up white Chevy into the clean air of Licking, Indiana, population 2,432, if you believed the interstate billboard. She locked the car, probably unlike anyone else here, but four years behind bars had made her suspicious of her fellow humans.

Head up, eyes straight ahead, hands down at her sides—courtesy of the guards’ strict training—she followed the incline of the sidewalk, up the tree- and shop-lined street that said welcome in a plain-spoken Midwestern accent. Lexi must love it here. Must feel safe.

Frannie just felt like having a drink.

When she’d gone to prison, she’d still been too young to buy a legal one. In the six months since she’d been paroled, she’d indulged in the occasional slug of cheap whiskey. Always just one. Just enough to steady her nerves. Man, did she need a shot of steadiness now.

She passed a few pedestrians going about the business of life. One old man gave her side-eye, probably seeing at a glance what she really was. Eyes straight ahead. Soon this sordid meeting would be over and she’d be back at the halfway house.

Secret Agent #27

TITLE: The Invisible Life of Gabrielle
GENRE: YA High Concept Women's

   The rabies would kill her. Gabrielle’s fate had shifted the moment the dog’s teeth penetrated her skin. As she lay on the mattress in the dark, death’s presence was palpable. It skulked in the corner, stealing away light and color. She could almost hear it laughing. She was afraid to die, but she was more terrified of the madness. There was no end worse than rabies.

    In a few weeks’ time she would be more animal than human, tied to a stake out back. She would bite and scratch anyone who dared come near. Consumed by thirst, she would refuse the cups of water her frightened family would push toward her. When death finally took her, they would all be grateful. Gabrielle swallowed hard, her mind racing to the moments before everything had changed.

    “You’ll come with me to the first bullfight of the year, won’t you Gabi? We need to start working on our outfits soon if we’re going to make an impression.” Fleur, whose marigold tones had been part of Gabrielle’s life since they were babies in their respective mothers’ bellies, tossed a wet pair of trousers into a basket perched at the water’s edge. Why fold the laundry, she would argue, if we just have to hang everything up on the clothesline when we get back home? “Manuel will be the matador. I’m dying to see which lady he’ll present with the bull’s ear.”

    “Hoping it will be you!”

Secret Agent #26

TITLE: Longhand
GENRE: Adult Urban Fantasy

My reflection stands beside her as I watch through her window. It’s an image unseen in many years. She knows I’m here; her narcissism is showing. Sitting at her vanity, she brushes the age from the thick waves of hair that falls to her hips—silver to gold. With a few more strokes, the metallic white is brushed away and replaced with the only sunshine I can bear.

The chill of the autumn night fogs the window with the contrasting heat introduced by my presence and obstructs my view. Her petite figure is still viewable through the soft, dreamy aesthetic as if I am watching her in an old Hollywood film; a little Vaseline on the lens to make my actress glow as she dances around a dim-lit bedroom—her youth steadily returning as she moves. An old hand wrinkled with time reaches into a closet to hang the drab dress worn during the day, and is replaced with a youthful porcelain-like hand retrieving a gleaming white silk nightgown with inset flowers on the bust and lace trim.

Her gait is bewitching as she glides around the room as if on air. I catch a shimmer in her eyes, and a sly smirk appears as she gets a glimpse of her returned beauty in a mirror. She lays the nightgown on the bed, smoothing the silk before returning to her seat. She looks to her left hand, and with eyes closed tight, she removes a plain gold wedding ring.

Secret Agent #25

TITLE: Buddy
GENRE: MG Contemporary

Every girl loves a birthday party. That’s what my foster mom, Miss Donna, said. She figured a big party for my twelfth birthday would be the perfect way for me to meet all the kids in her neighborhood. I disagreed. I knew it would be a disaster long before the candles were on the cake and the guests showed up. By the time the paramedics left, Miss Donna agreed with me.

           Twenty-three soon-to-be seventh-graders were packed like sardines into the overstuffed family room, laughing and chatting with each other while I watched from the sidelines and counted the sweat trickles as they escaped from my armpits. I’d only been at Miss Donna’s for three days, so the kids were all strangers to me. I couldn’t relax long enough to even remember their names.

The room was beautiful, and full of noise and bright colors. Miss Donna and her sisters must have worked most of the night to pull this off. My case worker, Miss Lee, may have even helped. She seemed to care about me. They all did. But what did I know? I’d never been in foster care before, so I didn’t know if the being nice was real or just part of the job.

Gifts covered the long table over by the wall. I tried to ignore them, but all that pink and purple fluff was hard to resist. Boxes of every shape and size taunted me with a promise of something exciting.

Secret Agent #24

TITLE: WHISPERS
GENRE: YA Fantasy

I killed a man.

Two nights ago.

A creepy guy with a knife came at me.

I never saw him before and have no idea who he was.

Right after I left him lying in his own blood, I woke up screaming.

Destiny, the dietary aide at the mental hospital where I work after school said, “Dreams foretell the future, Samantha.”

That spooked me out, but then maybe she was wrong.

Ever since school ended today, I've been dreading this moment. My stomach lurches when I realize this will be a test of Destiny's prophesy. I've got my fingers crossed that she's wrong.

The bus driver pulls off to the side of the road and shouts to me, “Mental Hospital.” He lets me out and drives away.

My heart's pounding. I force my feet to keep going, even though I want to run after the bus and yell, “Wait. Don't leave me here. I'm only sixteen. I'm not ready for this.”

The bus pulls out of sight. It doesn't matter, because something makes me keep moving toward the hospital.


It's so cold, even for northern Wisconsin in December. Snowflakes rush down from the skies and bite my face. My breath comes out in frosty vapors. I pull the hood of my ski jacket over my head and wish I had a weapon. That's how bad this place spooks me out.
What spooks me the most is that I won't be able to stop what happens next.

Secret Agent #23

TITLE: Improvisando
GENRE: MG Fantasy

You have to attack that first note. The B. It tells your audience everything about what’s to come. Quasi improvisando, the music 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.

Mr. Loyola would announce the results any moment: First place in Gleam’s Champion Cellist Competition goes to Briar Palustra! I adjusted my tortoiseshell glasses so I didn’t have to look at the other finalists standing next to me backstage. Especially Damian Silver, the only one unimpressed by my icy perfection. I could feel his dark glare from a meter away.

He knows you’re a fake. Heat spread across my cheeks to my ears. My hair usually covered them, but Mother insisted on pinning it up in some sort of lumpy braided thing. I adjusted the silvery feather earrings that my brother Brook made for me to wear for finals.

“I’m supposed to win,” Damian hissed. “You haven’t even had your Career Commitment Recital yet. You’re not a real musician.”

He was right. Today, I was a fake in more than my playing. “They changed the rules, remember?” Entirely for me—not a teenager for two more days—because Mr. Loyola thought I deserved it. If I won this contest, I’d become an official Champion as soon as I performed the customary thirteenth-birthday Commitment Recital.

“Come on, Briar.” He gouged the floor with the pointy tip of his cello’s endpin. “You could’ve waited.”

Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Wild Music
GENRE: YA Contemporary

“Want to try a howl?” I ask as Josh Winter and I lean on the railing of the Wolf Center’s viewing platform.

The last rays of the setting sun stretch orange and red fingers across the sky and cast shadows over the ground below. The evening holds its breath as the birds settle into sleep. The perfect time to howl to the Silver Valley Wolf Pack.

“A howl?” Josh coughs and shifts his weight. The warped boards of the viewing deck creak under us. “What for?”

“Sometimes, the wolves answer. Coolest sound ever.” I hold up my cell. “I use it for my ringtone.”
“You just want to see me make a fool of myself.”

“No way.” I put my hand over my heart. “Swear.”

Josh frowns, as if he thinks I’m playing a prank on him. “You first.”

“Deal.” I raise my head and howl for all I’m worth. I imagine the sound flowing out into the valley, imagine the wolves lifting their heads, their ears pricked. Answer me. Join my song.

The echoes fade away. Josh laughs. “I don’t hear anything—”

A howl shoves the silence aside. The sound starts high and keening, gradually drops in pitch. Other wolf voices join in; shrill yips and barks merge to create a virtual symphony. I rub my arms where the hairs stand on end, inhale the sharp aroma of the pine trees. Thanks, guys. I never get tired of that sound.

Secret Agent #21

TITLE: Seven Rivers
GENRE: Adult Mainstream with supernatural elements

March 22, 1993

I’ll admit it. I totally forgot I had this journal. When Ms. Gleason passed them out last September I didn’t think much of the assignment. Write about your life, she said. It’s good to keep a journal because it’s so easy to forget. Thirty years from now you’ll be glad you did. Write down anything noteworthy or interesting. Those were her exact words. Noteworthy or interesting. Clearly, Ms. Gleason was new to this town because if she had grown up here she’d wouldn’t have said something so stupid. Because there is nothing remotely noteworthy or interesting here. Seven Rivers, Wisconsin, population 5,280 (same number of people as feet in a mile!) is probably the most uninteresting place on the planet.

Nothing ever happens here.

            Until it did.

            So I suppose I should write it down. So I don’t forget. Though I don’t think anything could make me forget what happened. Probably not even if I had a lobotomy or electric shock therapy.

            So I don’t know all the details, but after a few months of talking with everyone, some pieces have fallen into place, though if anyone reads this they’ll think I’m a complete liar. Or shit house rat crazy. That’s something Harry would say. Who’s Harry, you ask? Well, up until a few months ago I just thought he was my weirdo neighbor. He pretty much kept to himself, like most people around here. But then I got to know him.

Secret Agent #20

TITLE: Flying Ships and Shadows Sweep
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Dusters crawled all over Madinah Zarkah, the blue city. It was one of those days where it seemed like the doors of hell had been opened, letting in a sweltering heat and welcoming more and more evil into North Africa. The fountains had run dry. Soon, people would have to suck on their own sweat to wet their tongue.

How did the dusters get in? thought thirteen-year-old Anise Mimooni as he left the school of magic and closed the heavy wooden doors behind him. Desert dunes lined one side of the Moroccan oasis, offering a barrier to the desert dusters. Today, the barrier had been breached.

Anise’s hometown buzzed with the voices of sellers in the souk. He had to compete for space with pack animals piled high with goods. Standing guard in front of the magic school, he whipped his rod. The wooden stick sizzled away, absorbed into the peddlers’ cries, “Knife sharpening,” “Fruits, bananas, oranges.” The oasis inhabitants hadn’t noticed the intrusion yet.

The ting of hammer hitting copper pots startled him. The aroma of the street filled with pungent spices made him turn. The grilled meats on open fires sizzled. The heat filled his belly and worry knotted his guts. It would be so easy for dusters to hide behind the hodgepodge of stands and tousle everything. Something clattered on the ground close to him.

Anise jumped to the side. A duster danced around him, lightly sweeping the sand of the desert into powder puffs.

Secret Agent #19

TITLE: If the Stars Should Appear
GENRE: Adult Rom-Com

Once, I was canvassing for a political candidate and a woman at the door asked me, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for money?”

I replied, “I went to college.”

I’m thinking about that conversation now, as I stand in a long line of future graduates, all of us draped in unflattering black gowns. We’re rowed two-by-two beneath the stadium, ready to take our seats on the football field and start the rest of our lives.

Today’s a day of celebration, which explains why several students in front of me have decorated their mortarboards, bejeweling the hell out of the top with shiny beads, foam letters and glitter glue. JOB WANTED. CALL ME 555-7619 one says. SALLIE MAE OWNS MY LIFE says another. The girl in front of me has a picture of her walking up steps, a ball and chain named “crippling debt” locked to her ankle, the caption below reading: $120,000 DOLLARS LATER LMAO.

I cringe. It’s not funny lady. You’ll owe that money after today.

My friends have accepted student debt as the price you pay for doing business, like sales tax or rating your Uber driver five stars because he knows where you live. Technically, they’re right. And it’s not like I have any room to judge. Tomorrow, I start paying off the twenty-three grand I owe. If I’m fiscal, I’ll be debt free in nine years.

I’m so screwed.

Secret Agent #18

TITLE: Fix Your Life!
GENRE: MG Contemporary Fantasy

April vacation starts the second the bell rings. The whole sixth grade streams out the door whooping and laughing and high-fiving. Groups of kids peel off in different directions. At my corner, I wave goodbye to my friends and head down my street alone. I stop to tie a flapping shoelace and when I straighten up, there’s a strange little man right in front of my face.

Yikes! I jump back. Where did he come from? I look up. Did he fall out of a tree?

“Greetings!” he says. “I’m Dexter, the host of Fix Your Life! The reality TV show that says what it does, and does what it says.”

Even my five-year-old sister Taylor knows you’re not supposed to speak to strangers, but I can’t stop myself.

“You don’t look like a TV host.”

He looks like a deranged elf; scrawny and a little hunched over, not much taller than me. He’s wearing a green, satin baseball jacket, tan chinos, high top Converse sneakers and a Yankees cap with the visor in the back. I do a quick visual sweep of the neighborhood. There’s no one else around, no cameramen, no production crew, no people.

He pokes his long, skinny nose in my face. “As you’ll soon find out, what you get is not always what you see, Little Lady.”

I lean backwards. This guy is not making sense. And if he is who he says he is how did he get here? People don’t just appear.

Secret Agent #17

TITLE: Codename: Christmas
GENRE: Adult Romantic comedy

Though there are thousands of places to enjoy a white Christmas beyond Belle Valley, Virginia, Cara Gardner couldn’t imagine why anyone would. Her picturesque hometown, hugged by the snow-capped Blue Ridge mountains, was always scenic and pretty, but there was an extra layer of sparkle and shine during the holidays. Especially this year.

    It seemed like everyone in the city was determined to make this season one to remember as they rolled out the red carpet to welcome devoted fans to the annual Arabella Winter Literary Jubilee. Though the Jubilee had begun years ago as a modest affair, it had grown every year since. With the added allure of this year’s Winter Auction, which would feature dozens of items that the recently-deceased last heir of the Winter Estate left to the town of Belle Valley for fundraising purposes, they were expecting a healthy crowd.

Cara had always loved being from the same city as her favorite writer, but the truth was Miss Winter wasn’t just a hometown hero. The author’s celebrated series of children’s books, Christmas in Belle Valley, first published in the 1940s, had generations of dedicated readers. After Miss Winter’s death several years earlier the town council thought it fitting to host an annual event for the legions of literary tourists that flocked to Belle Valley every Christmas in her honor. When this year’s call went out for volunteers to help with the weeklong celebration, Cara, as always, was the first of many locals to sign up.

Secret Agent #16

TITLE: VANTAGE
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The tree looming in front of them was all Tripp remembered before everything went black. When he came to, his body smeared with wet dirt and mangled leaves, he stumbled to his feet.

Metal twisted into pretzel shapes layered with shards of glass was all that remained of his car.

Fumbling in his pocket, he found his phone and clicked on the flashlight app. A thin sliver of light revealed a towering oak had crumpled the Audi. He moved closer, his heart pounding, hoping Jeremy had been thrown safely from the car like he had. The ground was littered with glass and dented beer cans. The fruity scent of the spilt beer smearing the glass and enveloping the night air made him want to retch.

He dreaded what he might find beyond the cracked glass of the side window as the beam of his phone flashlight scanned what was left of the inside. Nothing there but broken glass and mangled leather. No Jeremy.

His phone charge wouldn’t last much longer. He moved the dim light over the leaf-covered ground surrounding the car. No sign of his best friend. When the battery bar showed red, he punched 911, his hand shaking so hard he had trouble holding the phone.

“What’s your emergency?” A disembodied voice in a dark nightmare.

“I’ve been in—”

 His voice drowned in the scream of the siren. He fell to his knees, his head in his hands.   

 Later, when the questions started, he couldn’t answer.

Secret Agent #15

TITLE: ROOK AND ORION
GENRE: MG Contemporary

A hurricane roared outside, but the storm brewing inside was the one Rook longed to fly away from.
"I talked to Miss Elizabeth," Mom said.

Rook tied back her long, black hair and rested her elbows on top of the couch. The rough fabric made her skin itch. Plywood covered the living room window, so Rook pointed her binoculars through a knothole and focused them on the bent trees outside, dark against the steel-grey clouds.

"Are you listening to me, young lady?"

Not if she could help it. But Mom's words kept pecking at her.

Rook tapped the leather patch on her shoulder. Orion spread his brown wings, showing the white feathers underneath, and flapped over from his perch in the corner. He gripped the patch—Dad had made it so Orion's talons didn't wreck all of Rook's shirts—and rubbed the smooth curve of his beak against Rook's cheek. She tried not to laugh. That tickled.

"I said I talked to Miss Elizabeth."

"Who?"

Rook didn't know any Miss Elizabeth. She squeezed one eye shut and squinted through the other. Every so often a raindrop streaked through the hole in the plywood and splatted in front of Rook, as if trying to hit her. Hurricane Carol had been lashing out at the Georgia coast for several hours now. Carol might only be a category one, but a hurricane was a hurricane.

Orion made a soft noise and bent his head to preen his wing, his feathers brushing against Rook's cheek.

Secret Agent #14

TITLE: The Girl Who Yeeted Fire
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Edgeweiss sat alone in the darkness of her room, as she would any other Friday night. Heels on the chair’s seat, legs hugged to her chest, hands on her mouse and keyboard. The desk space behind her laptop held only a stack of textbooks she’d soon start using.

She hummed a song, with cadence that drifted like falling snow. Several stanzas in, she let go of her mouse and stuck a finger out, and a little crow perched upon it. It listened as Edgeweiss hummed.
“You’re always in here,” spoke the little bird. Its voice was airy like hers.

“Is that so?” Edgeweiss said.

“There is a festival at the park tonight. Will you go with me?”

Edgeweiss shrugged, shoulders barely scraping her chin-length hair.

The crow eyed her laundry basket in the corner, inside which a pile of pajamas and underwear accumulated. It was summer break, and she hadn’t reason to leave the house in days.

“You need to talk to people more,” the bird said.

“I do talk.”

“You message strangers on the internet, and that is not the same,” spoke the bird. Its voice was solemn like hers.

“There, I’m my words and nothing more. No one’s bothered by my tone. No one watches my expressions. They don’t judge me by such subjective things; they don’t care who I am. I fit in.”
Edgeweiss curled her finger in toward her chest. The little bird balanced atop, its beady eyes reflecting only the glow of the laptop screen.

Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Until You Are Mine (Until You #2)
GENRE: NA Romance

Weeks pass in an emotional haze. The never-ending stream of friends and strangers dropping in to pay their respects by bringing food or flowers has long stopped. It’s just me and Mom now. Except, it truly feels like it’s just me and a body that used to be my mother. She barely leaves her room. She’s not handling Dad’s death well. I can’t blame her. I really can’t, but she can’t spend the rest of her life in bed.

It’s like I’ve lost my mother too. Like I’m the mother, having to remind her of life’s basic needs.
It’s hard getting myself up and to school when most days I would rather just roll over and go back to sleep. Besides missing my dad, I miss Jace and Joseph. I miss Joseph oh so much, but I just can’t go there. The immediacy of life is banging down my door, far too many things to worry about and stress over to think about Joseph and our future that may never be.

I’m barely keeping it together. I’m in my senior year of high school, getting ready to graduate, intern at MCI this summer, and start at UT in the fall while also trying to keep our house running like my father was here. Like his absence hasn’t left me with paying bills, grocery shopping, and sorting out my father’s estate. Things an eighteen-year-old should not have to deal with.

There’s that, too. Today’s my eighteenth birthday.

Secret Agent #12

TITLE: The Institution of Marriage
GENRE: Adult Erotic Romance

The Lounge was a block away from Women’s Health Institute of Miami office. It was lush and perfect for the high-end crowd that frequented the full-fledged bar in the middle of the rich Miami suburb. Despite it having a great dance floor, no one danced at The Lounge, and the crowd was gone most days by nine o’clock. The CEOs, lawyers, and doctors who brought clients to The Lounge for lunch often returned for their weekly happy-hour celebration of their successes of the week. The walls were lined with plush private booths where patrons could turn the volume up or down based on the desired effect.

Drs. Marissa Perez, Sonya Richards, Charissa Ricci sat in their favorite booth in the back of The Lounge.

“Ding-dong, the bitch is dead,” Marissa said while holding up her glass to wait on a confirmation glass clink from her partners.

“Stop it. She is still my friend even if she isn’t our partner anymore.” Sonya half-laughed, but she felt obligated to take up for her former partner.

Together, with their former business partner, Dr. Melanie White, the women ran Miami’s most prestigious ob-gyn office called Women’s Health Institute of Miami or WHIM for short since 2009.  They had taken a gamble by subletting the remaining space of a medical office of Dr. Hornwell, the world-renowned fertility specialist.

The high-end Coral Gables, Florida, office was more than they could afford.

Secret Agent #11

TITLE: A DISTANT ROAR
GENRE: Adult HIstorical Romance

Miles City, Montana - 1944

Years later, I thought, No one would believe what happened. I knew The Daily Star reported it because I wrote the story. At the time, I doubted it would go any further. No one would want to think their town could be bombed, and by their own army. That’s why, now, I want to get everything down, in writing, before I forget something important. But before I get ahead of myself, I’d better start right at the beginning. It was almost spring when I arrived here.

            “Miles City,” the bus driver yelled out. “There’ll be an hour layover here so I suggest you take care of your personal needs and get something to eat. We’ll go straight on to Billings from here. No stops.”

            I got my beat-up valise down from the luggage rack, checked the seams on my stockings, adjusted my newly purchased lady’s fedora and walked off the bus, head held high. I was ready to conquer anyone or anything that tried to prevent my career from blossoming, my bravado belying the sweat running down my back. The Miles Howard Hotel stood directly in front of me. A giant boot spur jutted out from its marquee. The Stockman’s Bar sat on one side of the building, the Golden Spur Bar on the other, and the Montana Bar was a few feet down the street. Guess I know what to expect from this burg.

            The nondescript two-story hotel told me this was a no-nonsense town.

Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Nowhere to Belong
GENRE: YA Contemporary

My last best day.

I took the bus home since my two older brothers had left school early to go camping with my dad. Upon entering the house, the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies drew my best friend Madison and me to the kitchen. We grabbed some hot cookies straight off the cookie sheet and plopped down at the kitchen table.

“Hi girls,” my mom said. “Want some milk with that?”

“Way to be cliché, Mom,” I mumbled with my mouth full of warm chocolaty goodness.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” My mom laughed and grabbed the carton out of the fridge.

After our clichéd snack, Madison and I escaped up to my room.

“Sleepover tonight or tomorrow night?” Madison asked.

“Tomorrow night, my house. Tonight’s my girls’ night with Mom since Dad’s taking the boys camping this weekend, remember? No obnoxious brothers for a whole weekend.”

“Your brothers aren’t that bad. I’m stuck alone with my parents all the time. Boring.”

“Never a dull moment over here.” I rolled my eyes, but my brothers weren’t so bad. I mean, they did let me ride with them to school most of the time, and family vacations would be pretty boring if it was just me and my parents.

Later that night, I made a big pot of popcorn while waiting for my mom to get home with our Chinese takeout. She walked in just as I was dumping the steaming popcorn into a bowl.

Secret Agent #9

TITLE: DEFIANCE
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Amber wanted to do something fun with her friend on this beautiful spring day, the first of a two week break from school, but Shana had to spoil it all by saying she couldn’t go. What was the point of skipping out on her chores by herself? To think, she biked all the way down here for nothing.
“Are you sure you can’t get away?” Amber asked, folding her hands together, trying to look pathetic and abandoned.

Shana looked out towards the fields. One would think corn farmers would have better corn than the stalks withering in the sun back there. Finally, she shook her head.

“Can’t. My pop wants me to spread fertilizer.” She stuck her tongue out and pretended to puke. “I’ll get my dad to lend me the truck tonight and we can go catch a movie. There’s a new one playing at the theater.”

Amber agreed, although with a lack of enthusiasm. The film was an epic based on the Resurgence, a myth she learned in school years ago. The Monks who served the Earth Elemental were killed and a group of heroes had to brave the trials of Mount Cuzo in order to create a new line of protectors of the land. Total snoozefest. She preferred the movie that had been playing at the theatre last month, which took place in a horrible world with no magic or Elementals and people were hunted relentlessly by the beasts, but their greatest enemy was each other.

Secret Agent #8

TITLE: Into The Mazewood
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Maeve Juniper’s father had returned early from his Expedition, and she was not even halfway prepared.

“Maeve!” called her tutor, Ms. Arrowroot, from the bottom floor of their apartment. “If you don’t hurry up, we’ll be late for the assembly!”

“I’m coming!” Maeve shrieked, though she was not. She stood in the middle of her attic room amidst a pile of books, snapping her suspenders against her shoulder with a thumb and chewing on her lip as hard as she could. Her heart raced in her chest like a mouse trapped in one of the Conservatory greenhouses.

She was equal parts delighted and discombobulated. No one had expected the Expedition team to return from the Mazewood in just three months. Beyond the carefully engineered glass walls of the Conservatory, the Wood stretched to the ends of the earth, as far as anyone knew. Its paths were ever-changing and full of obstacles, and that was doubly true this time of year during the Bloom, with everything growing and flowering. The Expeditioners’ goal was to map the Mazewood—as much of it as they could manage—and it seemed impossible for them to have gotten very far in so short a time.

Maeve knew her dilemma was small in comparison, but she still thought her heart might burst from the indecision. She’d planned to sit for the Apprentice Botanist’s entrance exam before her father came back, so that when he saw her next, she'd have a white coat like all the other Botanists.

Secret Agent #7

TITLE: The Fishermen
GENRE: YA Contemporary Dark Fantasy

Starting the fire had been more satisfying than I expected.

Flames wave out from the dumpster, a fiery demon drowning in garbage, signaling for help. The putrid wafting of lighter fluid, melting plastics, singed paper products, fish, and dank rot of uneaten salad billows out. The breath of the garbage beast. The blue metal containing it groans under the intense heat, flares glowing from the rusted-out holes near the edges.

 “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Pulling my gaze from the crackling fire, I glance over my shoulder. Jeff, my ex-boss in all of his self-righteous, holier-than-thou glory, stomps across the back lot towards me. The sickly pallor of his face makes his sweat-stained polo appear white. For once.

“What does it look like?” I brush a flake of cigarette ash from my own polo, still damp from the orange juice flung on me earlier by the irate Mr. Soren. All it does is smear the grey into the tangerine stain. Jeff’s eyes bulge out of his head as he stops beside me.

After his mouth opens and closes like a gulping fish, Jeff spins toward me. “What the hell, Derry? Don’t you know how dangerous this is?”

I take a long drag from my cigarette with the determination of a little boy enjoying a Slurpee. The final puff billows inside me, coating my lungs in a warm blanket of toxin before rushing back out as I exhale.

Secret Agent #6

TITLE: Everybody I Love Dies
GENRE: YA Thriller

The darkness is back and I’m freaking out. Kayla’s only five and couldn’t possibly cast a shadow that big. It stretches behind her like a long, flowing gown and creeps up the wall until it touches the ceiling. I know what it means.

Death is close.

I hate that she doesn’t see the darkness swirling about her, inching closer, tightening its grip. No one’s ever seen it but me. Mom thinks I’m making it up just to torment my little sister. Dad agrees with Mom because it’s his go-to move and anything more would require effort on his part. But I wouldn’t make it up. I adore Kayla in spite of all the attention she sucks away from me. In fact, I love her so much I almost convinced myself that it’s not real, that it’s all in my head. But I know that’s not true.
It can’t be.

“I’m gonna play outside.”

It’s not a question. Nothing Kayla ever says is a question. I envy her baseless confidence, her sweet arrogance. She can say whatever she wants and get away with it. She could probably get away with murder.

I know I couldn’t.

Kayla turns away from me, the flared ends of her bright yellow sundress gliding through the air as she spins. It’s her favorite dress. I should tell her to change into play clothes so she doesn’t get it dirty, but she won’t listen to me.

Now, we’ll have to find something else to bury her in.

Secret Agent #5

TITLE: The Shadow of the Tree
GENRE: YA Fantasy

The chirping of the crickets sharpened as Hauk slipped out of his hut. Somewhere in the forest, a barking owl claimed its territory. The humid warmth of the day still lingered, but the camp lay in darkness, the moon hiding in clouds. Hauk held still and scanned the circle of grass huts. His eyes were adjusted to the deeper dark inside, but he had to strain them to see all the way to the other side of the grounds. Embers still glowed in some of the fireplaces, but none of the other kids were up and about.

Still, his heart fluttered as he stole across the encampment.

He was cutting it close. The Guardian had just finished her nightly patrol. She could still be lurking around. You’d think she was an elder, not a kid like the rest of them, the way she stuck to the rules of her task.

When Hauk passed the camp entrance, a ray of light flickered in the corner of his eye. His head snapped toward it, and he stopped short in his tracks. Nothing but trees, just as it should be. But he could have sworn there was something. Check or continue? It would only take a moment, and if anyone saw him, he could claim he needed a pee. Hauk prayed to Light no dry sticks hid beneath the soft grass and tip-toed between two of the huts. At the outskirts of the camp the forest lay before him, dark and desolate.

Secret Agent #4

TITLE: RimBomBo
GENRE: MG Fantasy

     His mother’s mixing bowl was nearly as deep as he was tall.

     At ten-feet from her toes to her head, eight hundred and fifty-pound, Frigg Tiddle, used that bowl for making ox-bone flour biscuits. And for bathing him when he was a baby. Today? Full of cool water waiting on flour for those mouth-watering breakfast biscuits.

     “Boomhow many times have I told you not to stand so close to the bowl when you’re watching me cook?”

     “Umm.” At a stout forty-seven pounds and three ounces, eight-year old three foot tall Boom Tiddle leaned on the rim and dangled his pudgy fingers in the water. By this age, other Giant children were nearly seven feet tall.

     “You’re ignoring me, Boom Augustus.”

     A wild red hair curled down across his forehead. Boom shoved it aside. It curled right back down. Boom ignored it. He was too engrossed in his mother’s task at hand.

     “Mommo, aren’t you supposed to break up the bones into small pieces first before you smash them?”

      “You an expert on making biscuits, now, Boom?” His mother raised her kitchen mallet over her head. Suddenly, she slammed it down, pulverizing the parched white bones. Boom bounced into the air. He turned a full flip and landed on his feet. As if nothing had happened.
            
     He stared up at his mother. He was always staring up at her.

Secret Agent #3

TITLE: Demi of Earth and Steel
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

My fingers tightened around the wooden post as I thrust the sign into the air, high over my head. The words on it proclaimed RESPECT EXISTENCE OR EXPECT RESISTENCE!

Around me, others also held signs or pumped their fists in the air, shouting, “No, no, we won’t go!” I chanted along with them.

Across from us, men in construction uniforms stood in a huddle, rubbing their heads and grumbling to each other. A line of heavy machinery was parked behind them, bulldozers and cranes ready to begin a project we wanted to put a stop to.

Three men in clean business suits also stood to the side, throwing us dirty glares. They looked so out of place here, outside of their fancy, luxurious offices. This park was several miles outside of the nearest urban area, in the rural part of Macon, Georgia. I was surprised these men were willing to get their polished dress shoes dirty. But anything for money, I guess.

They’d already tried yelling and threatening us through a megaphone, but we’d just kept on chanting louder, our cries mingling together into one massive voice that refused to be silenced.

Beside me, my homeboy Callian nudged my arm with his elbow. “Look, they weren’t bluffing.” He pointed to where police cars were pulling up beside the construction vehicles, their red and blue lights flashing in the afternoon sun, tires spewing dirt into the tepid air.

“S***,” I muttered, my heart starting to pound. “Think we’ll be arrested?”

Secret Agent #2

TITLE: The Company of Old Ladies
GENRE: Adult women's upmarket

The two old ladies sit in the Panera Bakery Café near downtown Denver. Plump Pansy, gray hair in the French twist she’s sported for years, sips a small, Equal-sweetened, hazelnut decaf. Despite her life-long battle with weight, she makes a face and adds two packets of sugar. Friend Esther, tall and bony and strung together loosely as a starved cat, drinks a soy milk latte.

           Pansy resumes the women’s customary discussion, a courteous—if heated—dialogue over the benefits and burdens of advanced age. At sixty-eight, she struggles to accept her deteriorating exterior while her interior still feels about thirty-five. “I simply don’t care what’s proper or improper any more. If I want to be blunt and opinionated, I am. I’m willing to look foolish. A big bonus that compensates for discomfort like the hemorrhoids plaguing me.” She shifts on the hard chair to search for respite.

            Clamp! Instead of rebutting, Esther squeezes Pansy's arm, halting her mid-thought.

            Pansy knows she must freeze in obedience to Esther’s silent command. Esther, the elder by fifteen years, likes to lead in pointing out items of interest, perhaps an especially dirty homeless man, or a newspaper headline blazing panic over a new environmental danger. Pansy slowly sweeps the room with her gaze, never moving her head. Then she nods to indicate she’s seen the curiosity.

            And there it is. At the table next to them. Something truly strange and wonderful. Whether male or female Pansy can’t tell immediately. Starting at the top, a Mohawk.

Secret Agent #1

TITLE: Baywich and the Big Nothing
GENRE: MG Light Fantasy

I opened my bedroom window to the strangely clean smell of dirt from the freshly-turned fields. Yesterday my two best friends decided to wear skirts for our trip to Salem, out-voting me two to one. I laid out a frayed denim skirt and boots. As much as I loved my friends, I wouldn’t wear a ruffled sundress for anyone. I ran a brush through my blue-black hair cut in the newest face framing style, which according to Lizzie would make me look more mature. Of course, so would some cleavage, but apparently that would have to wait.

An annoyingly familiar sensation took over my core then reached out to my arms and legs like a powerful shock of electricity. Legtricity. I named it that when I was six and realized legtricity meant something weird was coming. Kind of like how a maple tree with leaves shivering silver side up means a storm’s on the way. My eyes teared over and I gulped air in painful, shallow breaths. My sight grew dark and blurry around the edges until all that was left was a tiny pinpoint of light. Gritting my teeth, I held onto that light.

The vision remained distant and fuzzy, but the meaning clear. I knew what I had to do. I had to talk to my mom. I saw it and I knew it, like I know the sky is blue. Of course, my mom is dead, but that didn’t change what I had to do.
         

Monday, April 6, 2020

Secret Agent Contest Early Info

Please note: This is NOT the call for submissions! The contest will open next Monday, April 13.

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:

ADULT
  • High-concept women's fiction
  • Rom-com
  • Mainstream with a hint of magic
YA
  • Fantasy
  • Magical Realism
  • Historical
  • Contemporary
  • Thriller
  • Mystery
MG
  • Contemporary
  • Mystery
  • Light fantasy
  • Light magical realism
Please ask your questions below, or hunt me down on Twitter!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Secret Agent Contest Coming Up!

I'm so excited to announce that I've (finally) got another Secret Agent contest on the horizon for you!

MARK THE DATE: Submissions for the upcoming contest will be on Monday, April 13.

(Note: if you are new to this blog, please go HERE to read about Secret Agent contests.)

As always, I will post detailed submission instructions one week before submissions. For now, I'm THRILLED to let you know that our April Secret Agent will accept submissions in adult, YA, and MG! That's right--all 3 categories! Here's the specific break-down:

ADULT
  • High-concept women's fiction
  • Rom-com
  • Mainstream with a hint of magic
YA
  • Fantasy
  • Magical Realism
  • Historical
  • Contemporary
  • Thriller
  • Mystery
MG
  • Contemporary
  • Mystery
  • Light fantasy
  • Light magical realism
If you have any questions, please ask below, or flag me down on Twitter

Yay!