Thursday, April 30, 2009

Get Ready For a "Practice Round"

For as much of an adrenalin rush as it might have been, this month's filled-up-in-two-minutes-flat Secret Agent submission process has left my head spinning.

It's not pretty. I'm scaring the neighbors.

So I want to do a little in-house crit before May's Secret Agent contest ("little" -- hah!). Yes, the critting is what it's all about, but to be honest, I feel the need to have a "dry run" for my new submission policy, which is going to work like this:

I will open the submissions at a set time (no early submissions will qualify). The window will remain open for 24 hours. Each submission will receive a number. The number is your LOTTERY NUMBER. After the 24-hour window has closed, I will RANDOMLY CHOOSE 50 ENTRIES.

And...if you made it into last month's Secret Agent round, PLEASE DO NOT ENTER THIS MONTH'S. No exceptions. So many people got turned away--they need a chance to throw their work out there, too.

I know you agree.

As for next week's crit: We're going to do a DROP THE NEEDLE (hooray!). Here are the guidelines:

  • Submissions will open at 9:00 AM EDT on Monday, May 4, and close at 9:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, May 5.
  • Each submission will receive a LOTTERY NUMBER via response email.
  • After submissions close, I will randomly choose 50 submissions for the crit session.
  • If your number is chosen, you will be notified as to which POST NUMBER yours will be.
  • IMPORTANT: If you don't hear from me, your number did not make the lottery.
  • Content for Monday's call: DROP THE NEEDLE into scene (anywhere in your novel) in which a character is displaying an emotion that is out of proportion; e.g., someone bursts into tears at an inappropriate moment, or someone's anger is way over the top, etc. (Why, you ask? Well, you know there's ALWAYS something behind a disproportionate emotion, right? So it's an excellent way to "show" what's behind a character's behavior/responses...and part of what motivates him.)
  • Format is the usual: 250 words, SCREEN NAME, TITLE, GENRE (in that order, please).
  • Send your submission to me at facelesswords(at) No attachments.
Post your questions below! I'm grateful for the way you all help me work out kinks. Growing pains are a good thing, so let's keep smoothing this baby out until it runs like a greased eel.


And starting combing through your novel for just the right scene! The winning submissions will be up on the blog on Wednesday.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When An Author Gets "The Call"

In the midst of the critiquing, I wanted to pass along this BLOG POST by agent Rachelle Gardner about "The Call" from an agent's perspective.

Rachelle's blog is always well written and thoughtful. Today's post is especially insightful for those of us waiting for the ever elusive "Call" in our own lives.

Share your impressions here!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

#15 1000 Words (redacted)

Content redacted.

#14 1000 Words

GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Inches from Dr. Bowen’s eyes, ants scrambled from their mound,
spoiling for war. Thin cords bit deeply into his wrists and ankles. A
sandaled foot crushed against his ear. Somewhere above a thicket of
legs, voices bickered in a tongue full of clicks, pops and swooping
vowels. His usual knack for identifying languages failed him.

He felt his pulse flutter against the cords in skips and starts,
like a frantic message in Morse Code. He struggled to remain calm. Any
outward signs of agitation might amuse his captors and inspire
torment, the way a cruel child might poke at an injured frog to make
it hop. His heart defied him, but obsessing about its queer rhythm
only made it beat harder and more erratically. Rivulets of sweat ran
into his eyes, blurring his vision. What a day to forget to take his
beta blockers.

The foot eased off his head. He squirmed away and shifted off a
root that had been pressing into his ribs. Hands reached down from
behind, helped him sit and brushed ants and bits of leaf from his
face. That token of kindness should have calmed him, but his heart
continued to stutter.

He turned to find himself eye to eye with a young woman. Under
calmer circumstances he might have found her pretty if he ignored the
swath of scabs marring half her face. Her gaze rigid, she inspected
his damaged ear, more benumbed than painful. A warm trickle ran down
his cheek.

Close to ten men and women surrounded him. Petite and nimble,
they moved with child-like grace. They resembled local Amerindians,
but their faces seemed flatter, their complexions more olive than

They bristled with machetes and spears and even a crossbow. None
of them carried a gun, that he could see. A few wore armor: gauntlets
and cuirasses made of leather and braided twine, vests with
overlapping scales resembling the elytra of beetles. Several disguised
themselves with bits of jungle.

One man, the eldest among them, stood apart in manner and dress.
He wore black sneakers, jeans and a Ziggy Marley t-shirt. Something
about him seemed familiar. The wrecked guitar leaning against a tree,
with popped strings and splintered ribs, cinched it.

“You followed me! You were on the bus to San Ignacio!” Dr. Bowen
accused, racking his mind for a notion as to why this motley gang
might be interested in him.

The man’s head turned lazily to face him “Follow you? I am think
I am one who is follow.”

“Listen, I didn’t see anything. I won’t say anything about… this.”

“This?” said the man, eyes quizzical, smile warped. “What you mean… this?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice whiny and pleading. “Whatever.
I didn’t see... anything.”

The man shrugged. “No matter. You live for now. Don’t give reason
to change mind.”

The man understood English, never a certainty this far west in
Belize, but a good sign. Clear communications had once helped him
wriggle free of a similar predicament in the Congo. It would help if
he knew his captors’ proclivities and sensitivities, but that depended
on who they were, which was far from clear at this point. These were
not mere drunken soldiers at a roadblock.

When he worked in Colombia in the 1980s, FARC narcoterrorists
near Buenaventura sometimes held tourists for ransom. Somehow, he
didn’t get the sense that this bunch ran drugs. Could they be leftist
rebels, too poor to possess a single AK-47 among them? The Guatemalan
border lay less than fifty kilometers away.

He began to feel woozy. Syncope was not his friend. From the
looks of it, no one in this crowd could perform CPR on him the way
that bystander did when he had collapsed outside a Starbucks in
Georgetown earlier that year. He had come to in a puddle of coffee,
siren keening just for him. His pulse had evened out before the ER
nurse could stick the electrodes on, so no one could tell him if his
fibrillation had been atrial or ventricular, a critical distinction. A
baby aspirin would keep him safe from atrial fib. For ventricular fib,
he needed beta blockers to prevent a death spiral that only a
defibrillator could reverse.

The woman who had helped him up now pored through the contents of
his pack. She pulled aside his prescriptions, medical kit and granola
bars, repacked the rest and tossed it to one of her comrades. She had
already relieved him of the pocket knife that had hung in a sheath on
his belt, but let him keep his keys, wallet, passport and pocket

“Excuse me. Those pills. Can you bring them here? You see, I’ve
got a heart problem,” he said, his voice hoarse.

The man who spoke English interrupted a discussion and turned to
Dr. Bowen. “Oh, your heart has a problem, does it?”

“Yes,” Dr. Bowen coughed.

“Mine too.” He held up his broken guitar. “My beauty. Smash up.
It break my heart, as you say.”

“No, really. I need those pills. My heart’s beating too fast, and
it’s irregular. Those pills will help me. Just one. I only need one.”

The man strode up, bent over him, and pulled his eyelid up with a
forefinger. He then placed two fingers against Dr. Bowen’s neck.

“You’re fine,” he said. “Just excite. And too red in the face,
maybe. But how I can know? People like you, if you’re not pale, you’re

Dr. Bowen felt a strip of cloth slide over his eyes and pull
tight. He jerked his head free. “Please! I’m no threat to you.” He
motioned towards a pile of stones set with a bronze plaque and cross
coated in verdigris. “That cairn over there, it’s my wife’s memorial.
This is where I lost her. I just came to remember Liz. I brought her
sweet peas.” A wilting bundle of scarlet blossoms lay atop the stone

“Stay still!” said the man from the bus, securing the blindfold.

#13 1000 Words

TITLE: Between the Shadows
GENRE: Science Fiction

Two trains and fifteen minutes ago, Daniel Evans’ life was perfect.

The locomotive was in motion before Daniel had a chance to think. His footsteps, fast and uncompromising, led him instinctively to the back of the car. Three men stood caught in conversation, oblivion to the world around them. They were dressed in similar black suits, like dirty carbon copies of himself. Praefects. His disheveled suit was a mockery of their position.
As he pushed past the men, one of them pivoted to the side, running smack into Daniel’s shoulder. The man, unsteady on his feet, fell over and into a pole reserved for those who opted to stand. A yell followed after Daniel as he pried the door open to pass between cars.

Don’t look back, he told himself. Never look back.

The Wretched were after him now.

All he had left were exaggerated stories and water cooler discussion to guide him through the underworld of the city. He didn’t put much faith in any of them.

The air in between howled around him, calling for him or anyone foolish enough to venture out too long. A sharp gust of wind pulled at his jacket, claiming only his loose tie. It fluttered in the air for a moment before being ripped to the side and away. A flash of flesh twisted his face to the side.


He pulled his coat tighter, grasping no comfort from its tight fabric. He searched the mixed darkness and artificial light. When nothing revealed itself, he entered the next cabin. A light at the back flickered slightly. Shadows played on each person’s face, obscuring their features and transforming them into something else.

Something less than human.

He shivered.

The intercom above crackled to life, freezing Daniel in place. “Next stop . . .”


Daniel’s eyes locked on the singular exit. He prepared to bolt.

“Central Square,” the announcer stated in a calm and soothing voice. A click signaled the end of the announcement. Daniel breathed a sigh of relief.

As the train ground to a halt and the doors started to open, his breath caught in his chest. In those fleeting moments, the doors seemed unwilling to budge for any man. Finally, they broke free of what had held them.

Before they opened completely, Daniel squeezed through the narrow gap. Daniel wrestled himself free as the doors slid shut behind him. He let out a pent up breath and the silence around him was comforting. He looked around in sudden confusion. Something was wrong. There was no one here. Daniel turned back to the train and watched it disappear into the darkness.

The lights above the platform shut off.

In an instant, the knot in his stomach tightened into an unbearable grip. His joints seized and a cry escaped his lips. The pain was gone as quickly as it had come, but a dull ache replaced it moments later.

Daniel sprinted toward the exit.

The Wretched crept onto the platform. The clicking of their claws echoed off the stone walls, mixing with their wet breaths, twisting into an eerie harmony. They anticipated the brief chase . . . anticipated the takedown. The exhalations came out in gurgles, as if they were drowning in their own fluids.


Another light went off.

Darkness nipped at his heels, toying with him, as it brought the Wretched that much closer. His panicked breathing filled his ears. The world became infinitely smaller in those moments, focusing on the damned as they came closed to one another.



The hunt was on.

Running on instinct alone, Daniel dodged right toward the thin sliver of light. The breathing of the approaching Wretched intensified to the point of near hyperventilation. An overzealous Wretch landed just short of its mark. It skidded in a shower of sparks as its claws dug into the concrete below. A growl erupted from the darkness behind him, something unearthly and ancient.

Daniel didn’t look back.

The open doorway seemed to widen as he neared it. He pushed his aching muscles harder. They screamed in protest but followed his commands. A burst of adrenaline propelled him out of the station into the humid night air.

A fresh breeze lit his skin afire. Bathed in light of a fluorescent bulb, Daniel breathed a sigh of relief. A dull ache filled his joints as he bent over and tried to catch his breath.

Blue light washed over the street, the marquee of time circled each of the grey buildings. Daniel tensed once more. He had to find somewhere to hide out.

A low buzz filled the air as the bulb above brightened. Daniel turned to look at the light, a growing sense of dread filling his bones.


A hand shot out of the darkness of the station, pulling him back in.

Daniel slammed into the pavement. A thud filled the humid air. Pain shot through Daniel’s chest as the air ejected from his lungs. His face ached, blood flowed into his mouth.

He spat without much force, the mixture of blood and saliva landing right in front of him, and then regretted it a moment later. Without hesitation, his face smashed into the ground once more.

“Oh god . . .” Daniel managed to moan as the Wretched swarmed around him. Looking toward the last source of light, Daniel saw the single beam falter as the door slid shut.

They’re always watching, Daniel thought as the hunters smothered him with their hot and sinewy bodies.

Screams filled the air in the next moment.

“Twenty-three minutes and two seconds,” a man noted. A metallic snap followed. “Impressive run, Evans. Too bad it ended a bit quickly. I was starting to have fun.”

His voice was lost amongst the screams.

#12 1000 Words

TITLE: thus far untitled
GENRE: Urban Fantasy

She was waiting for him at the bar when he came in for work. This surprised him; he knew her well enough – he prided himself on thoroughly researching his prey – but he did not think she knew him beyond a name and a face.

He shrugged off his coat and bundled it under the bar. “What can I get for you tonight, Phoebe?” he asked with a well-practiced smile. “It is Phoebe, right?”

“Nothing. I want to be sober tonight –”

“How about a Coke, then?”

“I want to talk to you,” she said.

“Sure – but make it quick. I've got a job to do, after all.” His smile did not falter, though the set of her jaw did not bode well.

“All right then.” She flipped her hair out of her face – though it was lank and dull and generally unfit for flipping. “I'm onto you.”

His heart skipped a beat, without fail. “Well?” he prompted.

“You're a vampire.”

He laughed in her face. “I get that all the time, you know. It comes of being stringy and pale and not getting out much. Look, my day job is in IT. Is that all, or do you want the Coke?”

Phoebe crossed her arms on the countertop and waited as he made up several patrons' orders. He attempted to, but couldn't, ignore her; she had parked herself on the stool and clearly refused to leave until he heard her out. He finished up the first round of drinks, wiped his hands on a dishtowel, and asked with a huff, “What, still here?”

“Yeah. I told you, I've got to talk to you.” She lowered her voice and added, “I know you're a vampire, Duane – I've checked.”

“You've... checked.” He raised an eyebrow, hoping she wouldn't catch on to the dishrag twisting between his fingers under the bar top.

“Yep.” She pulled a small, round object out of her purse – a pocket mirror. “And I can prove it.”

Before she could so much as blink, he lunged across the countertop and snatched the compact from her hand. “What do you want?” he snapped, all semblance of civility vanishing.

“I want you to turn me,” she said, unfazed.

Duane leaned forwards, his face just inches from hers, so she could smell the blood on his breath and see his needle-sharp canines peeking out from behind his lips. “You have no idea what you're asking,” he growled.

“I think I have some idea, Duane. Whatever you might think, I'm not some naïve twit who reads trashy vampire romance. I've done my homework.”

He raised his fist – clenched around the rag and mirror – and squeezed. “You don't know the half of it, mortal.” Shards of glass littered the wooden countertop between them. To her credit, she did not flinch.

“You don't know me.”

He tossed the dishtowel behind him, the mangled mirror frame clinking against the floor. Leaning back, he bared his teeth in a feral grin, like a wolf regarding a particularly reckless fawn. “And if I say no?”

Phoebe placed her palms flat on the bar top and in a hard voice, said, “Turn me, Duane, or I'll out you. I mean it.”

“Careful there, Phoebe,” he said, quirking an eyebrow and carelessly pouring someone another beer. “The last person to threaten me didn't survive to carry out the threat.”

“I'll do it right here, right now. I've got another mirror in my pocket.”

Even in the dim lighting, she could see his eyes darken – they were now pitch black – and his canines lengthen, like cat's claws unsheathed. He was no longer smiling. “We'll talk. Later. I've got a job to do,” he said. “Now get out.”

“I'll be seeing you later, then,” she said, hopping off the barstool. He turned away from her, and did not see her settle down in the far corner of the room.

Phoebe waited until the last patron had stumbled drunkenly from the bar; she approached as he was locking up. “I know you're there,” he said without looking away from the register.

“I know you do. You're a vampire, after all.” She pulled out the stool directly across from him and sat down. “You mind turning up the light? You can see in the dark, but I can't. Not yet, anyways.”

The lamp overhead turned on with a half-hearted sputter. Duane got a proper feel for her without the dim, multicolored lights and the overpowering stench of smoke that came with the customers – and she was a right mess. She was thin – too thin, by human standards – with dark hollows under her eyes and a faint sheen of cold sweat he could smell from a mile away; she looked ready to topple over from sheer exhaustion, holding herself together and upright by force of will alone. It's too soon, he thought, recalling the first time he'd fed on her, a mere eight months ago. It doesn't usually go this fast.

“Why?” he asked her, though he suspected he already knew. “Why do you want this?” His tone said, If you don't read trashy vampire romance, you'd better have a damned good reason.

For all her easy confidence, she hesitated, lips parted, poised on the brink of a response. Finally, she said, “You won't tell anyone, will you?”

“One secret for another. I suppose that's fair,” he replied. “Give me the mirror.”

Phoebe slipped it from her jeans pocket – it was a little square one this time, without a cover – and placed it face-down on the countertop. Duane ground it into the wooden surface with the heel of his hand, until the largest sliver of glass was no bigger than an ant. “You were saying?” he asked when he was through.

“I...” Phoebe took a deep, rattling breath. “I'm HIV positive. I don't want to die.”

#11 1000 Words

TITLE: Spoiler
GENRE: Science fiction

Mama never ate a Citizen child. No cheat in her group ever killed and ate kids, and nobody in Ranger’s group did, either. I have never known a cheat who did, so I think it’s a story Citizens tell each other to make what they do to us seem necessary. We did eat cats and dogs, and some Citizens think that’s just as bad as eating their children.

I’m sitting at a wooden table next to a fish’n’chips place by the water, in a city far from Oregon, writing this in a notebook I took from a bench in a coffee shop. I don‘t know what year this, I don’t ask anymore. But I’m sure it‘s at least a generation before the gamma trick. The day is so bright, the water out there brilliant blue, with little sailboats, and a gigantic boat, a ferry, crossing by. Until now, I’d never seen the ocean. It smells so wild, full of life unseen. In a hundred years, even before I’m born, the green islands out in the Sound and the place where I‘m sitting now will be under water. The ocean will cover the fish’n’chips stands and all their wonderful smells, the streets behind me, now busy with the cars of people who think things will always be like they are now, and lap at the hills, drowning the trees. I came to understand this, but it won’t help me. Or anybody. It will happen.

Maybe nobody will ever read this or believe it if they do, but I have to give the truth, for Mama and all the rest of us, because I don’t think I’ll be allowed to stay here much longer. Dr. Charlotte will be yanking me back. She still owns part of me

The first time she sent me, I landed in the right park, but came in too high. The fall knocked the breath out of me but didn’t break anything. Nothing in my kit was breakable. I scrambled to a tree and sat against it, hoping nobody had seen me fall.

I was instructed not to talk to anyone in this time, but I did. On the first day of the first trip. A plastic disk sailed toward where I was sitting under the tree and a boy chased after it, a boy with brown speckles on his face and shoulders and arms, pale legs below striped shorts.

He stopped and stared at me, and I knew he was a Citizen. Cheats don’t do that. He talked to me. Said, “Hi.”

I raised my eyes and looked at his face. For what seemed like too long, we looked at each other. He was bigger than me, almost a man, but Citizens are always a little scared because cheats are dangerous. This one just looked like he wanted something from me.

A woman yelled, “Hey, you kids better come finish these sandwiches.”

The boy jerked, like he’d been startled while poking at a snake. So he was scared of me. I don’t remember if he said anything before he walked away. But I saw him stop for a second or two before he went on.

I sat in the shade with the kit on my lap and waited for dusk. There was a strange sound high in the air, the sound of a machine. Through the branches of the tree above me, I saw a little airplane. A hundred years from now, aircraft are almost silent. You have to be alert or they’ll sneak up on you.

I should have hidden myself, to avoid more contact, but I didn’t. The boy came back.

“Brought you a sandwich.” He squatted on his haunches in front of me and held out something wrapped in clear plastic. Doctor had instructed me to talk to no one, to eat nothing until I had finished my task. I was not allowed to take food. But I did. I held out a hand and let the boy put the sandwich in it. He looked satisfied.

“My name’s Casey,” he said, watching me hold the plastic-wrapped food on my kit. He said, “What’s your name?”

I gave it to him, disobeying again. “Lil.”

“Hi, Lil,” he said. “Where you from?”

“Not here.”

A strange look came over his speckled face. “I know,” he said, and seemed to be waiting for me to give him more. He said, “I saw you pop out of the air, right about there.” He pointed up at the branches.

He would tell the Citizen Protection Patrol. But what could he tell that anybody would believe?

“Casey,” a man yelled, “time to go!”

“I have to go,” the boy said, standing up. “You wanna come with us?”

I didn’t understand what he wanted. I would be killed in this time because I didn’t know what Citizens meant when they said ordinary words.

The boy went away with his group. I stuck the sandwich in my kit and waited, sitting against the tree on the bristly grass, waited until shadows spread and melted together, and trees, bushes, firepits, and tables were black shapes over the grass. Other people, too, way over there, talking. I got up and walked down to the river and waited there, turning my back on the wide, pewter flow of water, watching the road. The sky was purple, faint stars showing.

In the dusk, twin lights appeared, and the red car. Standing in deep shadows, I watched it come to a stop. Watched a blond woman get out of the car and go around and bring out three little blond kids. The children were very quiet as their mother, talking fast and breathy, took the tiny boy and the older girl by the hand and led them toward the water, the air full of her voice. My scalp prickled when the older girl looked at me. Charlotte.

1000 Words: Round 3

Okay, here they come! Five 1000 word excerpts minus one (redacted because of participation in our most recent SA contest).

Crit away!1

Monday, April 27, 2009

Coming Up

Happy Monday, all!

My "birthday fantasy story" turned out to be more of a...spoof! Loved it. Sometimes I laughed out loud. (Nicole, you are naturally funny!) Thanks for playing. Though, seriously, the princess's love interest was a bit of a fluff, wasn't he? Give me Aragorn on horse any day.

Just to let you know that we're going to do some 1000-word critting tomorrow. We're on numbers 11 through 15. If that's you and you want to send me any edits, do so quickly! I'll be setting them up later today to post automatically in the morning.

On the writing front, I've got a plotting question for those of you who tend to be more organic writers, like me. Let's say you're zooming right along with your first draft. Lots of cool "what if's" and "what is he hinting ats" and "gasps!" and "oh no, what does that means" and...well, you get what I'm saying.

At that point, do you sit down and map it all out? Or do you just keep pressing on, working it out as you go?

Because, yeah, I'm there. And I tried twice this past weekend to sit down and work out the intertwined story arcs in my trusty notebook. And fell asleep both times.

A story planner I am not. But right now I'm craving it. Needing it, even.

So how do you work it all out? Share your methods!

And I'll see you in the morning for this week's crit session.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Fricassee

It's been a wonderful week of sharing thoughts, opinions, and insight on the blog. Thank you!

And now I am unabashedly taking the day off. It's my birthday and I'm happy about it.

Know what I'd love? A story. Will you write me a comment box story for my birthday?

  • Genre: Fantasy, please (my favorite)
  • Rule: Write two sentences and pass the pen
  • Participate as many times as you'd like
  • Make sure the story resolves with a HAPPY ending before midnight, EDT!
That's about it, really. Almost more than anything else, I love to see your creativity at work. Do this for me and I'll feel loved all day!


Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Knowing Whether It's "Ready"

It's a question that plagues every writer-with-a-finished-manuscript. Am I ready to query? Have I done all the editing I possibly could?

Fear of failure, at this juncture, will only serve to paralyze you. So it's important that you have a balanced combination of I know I can always make my work better and I have worked hard and I'm ready to throw this out there.

While I can't comment on each individual author's process-toward-success, I can certainly comment on submissions to the Secret Agent contests. I'm not going to comment on individual submissions, and I am not referring to any one submission in particular when I say: I think some of you may have jumped the gun. Honestly? I don't think you did it on purpose. But here are a few pointers to bear in mind prior to our next Secret Agent round. And remember--when you submit here, you should be ready to submit to agents. All the prizes are related to the Secret Agent's reading your work. And if it's not ready, you're wasting the agent's time (and your own).

So. The Secret Agent contest is not yet on your horizon if:

  • The manuscript isn't finished. 'Nuff said.
  • This is your first draft. I know you're elated to have a finished story in your hands, but there's a long, long road of edits before you.
  • You haven't gotten any outside feedback. Family members don't count.
  • You haven't let the manuscript rest for a while and gone back to it for another round of edits.
  • You're not sure of the genre or reading level of your story.
  • You're not sure what a literary agent does or why you might need one.
  • You're not ready to hear anything negative about your writing.
I think that covers the main points.

What if you've gotten some outside critique and you're still not sure? Well, in my opinion, if you're hearing the following, you still have plenty of work to do:

  • "Overwriting" or "too many adjectives" or "too many adverbs"
  • "Problems with tense/sentence structure/grammar"
  • Your writing is "confusing" or "hard to follow" or "convoluted"
  • "No voice" or "inconsistent voice"
  • Writing sounds "amateur" or "young" or "inexperienced" or "awkward"
If you'll notice, the above all have directly to do with the WRITING. Not with the story. And certainly not with you, personally.

Signs that there are problems with the actual story are comments leading toward "plot holes" or "can't suspend disbelief" or "no character development" or "doesn't make sense." You catch my drift.

Do I have time to read each entry carefully and determine whether it's "ready" for the barrage of public critique that will follow? No. That's why I'm placing this squarely on your lap, where it belongs.

Because "your lap" is where it sits each time you query an agent. Best foot forward and all that.

Okay? I want you all to SUCCEED. Let's get tough with ourselves and really dig into our work. Then, when we post it for critique, we'll get so much more out of it. The "bad fluff" will be long gone, and our best writing will have an opportunity to become even better.

Whew. End of topic.

And now I'm going to tie up some loose-ish ends and get ready to celebrate my birthday tomorrow. Oh, yes. And it's going to have chocolate in it. Chocolate frosting, actually--on vanilla cupcakes. And someone else is making them for me.

Does it get any better?

I am seriously obsessive about cupcakes. Even over cashews.

I think.

What do I want for my birthday? An agent. Followed rapidly by a huge book deal. If you can arrange that for me, please send me an email before midnight.

You're all awesome! See you tomorrow.

A word about harsh critiques

As always, an amazing conversation unfolded in yesterday's comment box. That's what I mean when I talk about the "community" here. Love it!

To clarify something: I do not condone insensitive or harsh critting. I also don't think it's okay to think it's okay. That's the stuff doormats are made of. I'm not a doormat, and I don't want you to be one, either.

But. The point of yesterday's post is that the harsh critique will happen whether you like it or not. And as in everything else, you must face it with grace and a tough skin.

And I am in no position to dictate how our Secret Agents respond to the excerpts posted here during the contests. I would never presume -- and I mean never -- to tell a Secret Agent how he or she may or may not post. The Secret Agents give us an incredible gift of their time. Those of you who do heavy duty critiquing here know just how time intensive it is.

And on top of that, they offer prizes that are another investment of their time.

Yesterday's post was not an attempt to excuse harsh critiquing practices. It was meant to be a dose of reality; as in, yes, they will happen when you least expect them, and yes, you will probably have an emotional response of some sort.

The main thing is that you need to move on, move forward. As always.

As for the submitting-manuscripts-that-may-not-be-ready: more on that later!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"I Hated This"

As we pause to draw breath after another rip-roarin' Secret Agent round, I'd like to focus on the fine art of handling criticism. A refresher course on this sort of this is always helpful, yes?

Frankly, this month's Secret Agent used less sugar on her cookies than some of our others. And that's okay. Everyone has his own style, his own way of expressing opinions. Most of you are attuned to the reality that throwing your work out there is fraught with potential Fear of Criticism and Fear of Rejection.

You already know that you're not supposed to take it personally.

But when the opinion expressed is so blunt, so unabashedly raw, that it sets your teeth on their proverbial edge, it might make you stagger a bit. Reel. Fight back the urge to give up.

That's a normal response. But it's also a response you need to move through quickly and with aplomb. Feel the feeling, then put it in its place. Move past it as quickly as you can.

I'm not telling you to discount the opinion. It may, in fact, be dead on. If someone tells you that your prose is rife with cliche and overwriting, it may feel like a slap in the face. But if your opening sentence reads like this: "Samantha stood on the brink of sanity, teetering precariously between the urge to live and the urge to ruthlessly succumb to a self-induced death." -- well, I'd say the cliche and overwriting bit was something you needed to hear.

Of course, there are soft, medium, and hard ways to express this opinion. The soft ways don't always do the job, and the hard ways often offend the caught-off-guard writer. But you need to be ready to read and receive all three types of criticism on your writing. Not that everything will be exactly right (remember the utter subjectivity of it all). But when you're panning for gold, you can't dump the dust back into the water without sifting.

So let's say our Secret Agent has read your 250 words and it hasn't hooked her because your writing isn't tight enough (most likely because you entered the contest before doing enough editing on your work, but I digress). Let's look at three potential responses:

SOFT: "You have the seeds of a compelling idea here! Keep working on your craft and spend some more time editing to make this flow better. As it stands, I'm not hooked; sorry."

MEDIUM: "Sorry, not hooked. While your MC definitely has pluck, the writing needs too much work (a reduction in adverbs and an eye to avoid repeating descriptions is key) for me to want to invest more time in at this point."

HARD: "This isn't close to being ready. The writing is all over the place and I found myself feeling lost after the second sentence. This is a no."

(Disclaimer: I made these up. I promise.)

Now, if you read carefully, you'll notice that the soft, medium, and hard responses are all saying the same thing. The problem with the soft response is that it might be too easy for the writer to think, "Hmm, this agent just doesn't like my story," instead of really honing in on the "spend some more time editing" part, which is the crux of the critique. The medium response is balanced because it makes no bones about what's wrong with the writing, but still points out something positive (a plucky MC is a good thing). The hard response is the most "real" response, but its tone might be off-putting to the author who wasn't ready to hear it.

So this is what I'm telling you: BE READY TO HEAR THE HARD RESPONSES.

They might hurt you. They might make you angry. Heck, they might have been inappropriately stated in the first place (hey, we're all human). But you absolutely have to be ready for them.

Remember the HISTORY OF THIS BLOG'S TITLE. Behind the concept of this entire blog is a critique of my work that started out stinging like mad and ended up changing the course of my writing forever.

And it was a MEDIUM response. It felt hard at the time because I wasn't used to throwing my work out there. But read it yourself, and you'll see that it falls into the MEDIUM category.

So. Soft, medium, or hard--you're going to receive them all, and you're going to have to learn to use them all to your benefit.

Yes, "I hated this" is about as hard as they come. Even so, it's just one person's opinion--one person's first impression of your work-that-still-needs-work.

Press on, and keep growing. We've got a veritable garden of growing authors around here! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and if I keep going with this sentence I'm going to drown in cliche.

But seriously. I want you to succeed almost as much as you want yourself to succeed. Stick around, keep working, keep growing your ultra-thick writer's skin. By now, you know how much you'll need it.

And finally, thank you. For being here, for sharing your work, for adding to the sense of community. And for allowing me to speak into your life, if only a little bit.

Now get to work.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Almost forgot!

The ever gracious Kate Schafer Testerman also expressed the following:

And if any of your readers have general questions for me, while I might be able to stop by on Monday to answer some in the comments, please do suggest they send me emails at, and I will post my reply on my site.

There you have it! Another agent ready and willing to educate aspiring authors.

And We Have Winners!

Ms. Testerman's winning choices are as follow:


1 Double Agent by Sonja
3 Spin by AmyK
4 Kiss and Tell by Katie Anderson
14 Up Lantau Running by Alps
32 Stream Pirate by sraasch

Ms. Testerman invites the honorable mentions to send her a query and the first three pages in the body of their email, as per her submissions guidelines (bearing in mind that having said she wasn't hooked once, she's not likely to change her mind).


20 Noah Zarc by Dale Pease
23 Control Issue by ElanaJ

The prize:

Ms. Testerman invites you to send her the first five chapters of your novel, along with a full synopsis. (Please email me at facelesswords(at) for submission instructions.)


37 Touching the Surface by by Kimmiepoppins

The prize:

Ms. Testerman invites you to send her your complete manuscript and full synopsis. (Please email me at facelesswords(at) for submission instructions.)

Warm congratulations to all!


Hearty thanks to Kate Schafer Testerman for her time, effort, and expertise!

Kate's bio:

After nearly ten years with industry powerhouse agency Janklow & Nesbit Associates, Kate Schafer Testerman formed kt literary in early 2008, where she concentrates on middle grade and YA fiction as well as diving into some adult commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction. Bringing to bear the experience of working with a large agency, she’s looking forward to concentrating on all aspects of working with her authors, offering hands-on experience, personal service, and a surfeit of optimism.

Her clients include Maureen Johnson, Alyson Noël, Ellen Booraem, S. Terrell French French, Lili Wilkinson, Josie Bloss, and Matthew Cody, among other exciting newcomers. Kate is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Honors Program, a former cast member of the New York Renaissance Faire, and an avid collector of shoes. Her interests cover a broad range including teen chick lit, urban fantasy and magical realism, adventure stories, and romantic comedies. She is an active member of the SCBWI.

What Kate is currently looking for:

"As always, I'm a sucker for a good romantic comedy -- my first choice would be one for a YA audience, but I love women's fiction as well. Some editor friends and I were lamenting the lack of a good Veronica Mars-esque teen detective story, so I'd love to find one of those, and as a former theatre geek, ice skater, and gymnast, I'd love to find YA novels that truly delve into those worlds as well. Beyond that, my interests get more general: adventure stories that keep me up too late reading, especially for middle grade, romances that make me swoon, and anything that makes me laugh out loud. I concentrate on YA and middle grade fiction, women's fiction, and do the very rare popculture narrative nonfiction -- something like Around the World in 80 Dates or Round Ireland With a Fridge."

And there you have it! As always, feel free to leave a personal thank-you for Kate in the comment box.

Coming up: This round's winners!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Fricassee

Good morning!

First of all, I've been enjoying the comments immensely--graphs of response patterns, scientific analysis of said patterns, efforts on behalf of critters to break the response patterns so that all submissions get fair time and attention.

Cool stuff! And especially cool to know that our newbies are having a positive experience here as well.

Several of you have suggested a lottery system, and I may have to implement that next month, because YA and MG are going to be included again (I can hear the kidlitters cheering). I expect another huge response, and I'm going to have to tame this monster somehow.

I don't choose the genres, you see. When an agent graciously agrees to participate in a contest, I post the genres that particular agent reps. It makes no sense whatsoever to open submissions to genres in which the Secret Agent isn't interested. This is, after all, an opportunity for you to get your work in front of an agent's eyeballs. So it had better be something the agent is looking for in the first place.

I'm also going to have to implement the "if you played last month, you can't play again this month" rule. Makes for a big administrative headache for me, but it has to be done. There are just too many of you, and I want to give as many of you a chance as possible.

So I'll be working through all that in the coming weeks, and I'll let you know what I come up with.

In the meantime: Today is #QUERYDAY on Twitter! And you don't need a Twitter account to follow along. Read Colleen Lindsay's post HERE to learn how. Many agents and editors are participating--literally posting what doesn't work for them (and sometimes what does work) as they slog through the queries in their inboxes. So box off a chunk of time and read them as they roll in.

Oh, and did you notice? It's not called #QUERYFAIL anymore. Got rid of that "fail" thing after all. Guess I wasn't the only one who thought the word "fail" was a problem.

Keep your comments on how-to-keep-secret-agent-contests-fair coming! And keep critting 'til your fingers fall off. Our Secret Agent will be unveiled on Monday, and the winners will be posted as well.

Happy weekend, all!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Don't Neglect The 1/4s and 3/4s!!

First, a huge thank you to all of you who have been busily critting.

As we've seen before, there's a pattern of neglect in two distinct segments of our submissions. One of our readers spelled it out in a comment box for me:

D. Robert Pease said...

I was noticing a definite trend in which posts were receiving higher numbers of comments, and I wondered if it were true so I charted it out. :-) It looks like there is a definite tendency to comment on the ones toward the beginning, and the ones toward the end. Then there is a little bump right smack dab in the middle. This all makes sense as people would think "Ah the people at the end aren't getting any love, so they go there, then they see they are so they go to the middle. That leaves two little dips at about 1/4 and 3/4 of the way through... Just thought it was interesting (and because mine just happened to be tied for the least number of comments.) If anyone wants to see my fancy chart I can upload it somewhere. :-)

There you have it. If you haven't jumped into the critiquing yet, you might consider hitting those entries who are trailing behind in comments.

Someone ought to write a thesis on this. Or something.

50 Secret Agent

TITLE: Untold
GENRE: middle fiction

There would be no more waiting. With every detail in place, the Four stormed towards the village of Lafee. Fuelled with conviction, each one followed the leader over the sleepy landscape dotted with dwellings. Launching the plan was all that mattered.

Inside one of the smaller dwellings, Jacabo wrestled thoughts: once again, an entourage of possibilities had crept in during the night and refused to leave. He tugged his allotted corner of the quilt. The rest remained fixed around a snoring body. A cool breeze snuck up his exposed leg. Unimpressed by the gesture, he slipped from the bed and tiptoed over to the window. Gangs of trees were uprooted and twirling towards him. There was no time to react before his body froze, leaving his eyes to deal with the fear. When they could get no wider, he dived back into bed and yanked the cover over his head.

Shattered glass dispersed, letting in freezing air that rummaged through the house squealing with fury. Thick branches tried to squeeze through the broken glass. Those that failed remained plastered against the window. The wooden floor broke pattern, cracking open. Heirlooms smashed. Shelves of unread books split, dumping the rejects. Loose paper succumbed to the whirlwind of chaos and flew into the air, then just as quickly, a birth of silence ensued.

A wild animal sprung from the covers. Thick braids and flailing arms slashed his face as he grappled with the writhing body. It revolted, digging nails into his arms. Unable to stand the pain, he released his wife.

49 Secret Agent

TITLE: Dragonseeker
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Eryn pushed through the iron gate and stormed inside the garden. The beauty of the secluded scape did nothing to soothe her anger. Everyone kept talking about how wonderful Mum was, and complete strangers agreed with him.

But they didn’t know her mother. They couldn’t possibly understand what it felt like to lose her.

She pulled at the formal braids she’d been forced to wear and threw her coronet to the ground. She loathed that piece of elven-made silver and all it represented. Especially now. Mum was dead. She left Eryn all alone. No one else would ever understand her, not like Mum did.

Everyone just tolerated her. They had to, because of her father. Bad enough being a half-blood, but with her outbursts…

Eryn knew what her tutors and nannies said about her behind closed doors. She was the freak of the kingdom.

The weight of her mother’s necklace against her throat choked her. Eryn ripped the pendant from her neck and glared at the eight-sided disc. Her reflection stared back; strands of pearls woven into her dark messy hair and pale, pointy ears. She touched the tip and ran a finger along the edge. She wasn’t an elf; not really. Her ears were the only sign that she had any elvish blood at all. Her brother had inherited their mother’s abilities and edere light. Rosse could talk to trees and animals. All Eryn could do was…that thing.

She might as well be all human. She wasn’t anything like her mother.

48 Secret Agent


Scarlet Dimity knew what was coming. Early evenings like this had been the routine for three months. She twined her slender fingers through her long, black hair several times as she stood waiting in the back yard. A balmy June breeze blew her blue skirt around her ankles, and a disturbance of some kind sent birds flying from the trees behind her, but her eyes remained focused on the back door.

The door flew open, and her heartbeat quickened. Her mother, Corinda, and grandmother, Aradia, stepped outside. Scarlet's gaze moved to the clear glass ball in her grandmother's calloused hands. The globe glowed and three shades of green light wove like ribbons around the thin strands of glass inside the orb. Aradia handed the sphere to Corinda. The glow brightened slightly, and the green ribbons of light were instantly joined by three shades of orange.

Scarlet's stomach twisted. She knew what was hoped for, but she also knew the chances of success were slim. Would this be the moment they had waited for? Corinda stepped forward and lowered the warm, glowing Witching Ball into Scarlet's shaking hands.

The glowing stopped. The colors within the ball faded to nothing. The round glass felt cold and heavy with the weight of disappointment. Scarlet's heart sank. Why had she allowed herself to hope?

"Not to worry," Corinda said. "There's still plenty of time."

But Scarlet knew time was running out. She only had five months to make the Witching Ball glow. After her seventeenth birthday, the ball would not grant her power and she'd never be a witch.

47 Secret Agent

GENRE: Middle Grade

The minivan slowed to make the turn off the highway. “Only five more miles, kids.”

Michaela glanced up from her sketching. After two days of traveling, they had finally reached their destination. The mountain loomed ahead, filling the sky. This was her favorite part of the trip, the switchback curves winding tighter and tighter up to the top of the mountain and Granny and Grandpa’s house. She felt like she was returning home after a long absence.

“Can we go fishing when we get there, Dad?” asked Michaela’s older brother, Sean.

“May we go fishing,” corrected Mom. “And the answer is no. We’re going to visit with your grandparents this evening. You may fish tomorrow, as long as you promise to stay off that rotten dock.”

“We’ll get up extra early,” said Dad as his eyes found Sean’s in the rearview mirror.

The minivan skidded around a tight curve. Michaela’s sketchpad flew through the air, landing at Sean’s feet.

“Michael, watch the road,” cried Mom.


“Sweet!” said Sean. He retrieved the sketchbook from the floor, glancing at it before handing it back to Michaela. “Why don’t you ever draw anything cool, like super heroes? Castles are so lame.”

“They are so not,” said Michaela. “They’re full of mystery and magic. I’m going to live in one when I grow up.”

Sean sneered. “In your dreams. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a definite castle shortage here in the real world.”

46 Secret Agent

TITLE: Some Strange Magic
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Even after he was dead, my father’s obsession with magic continued to color my life. He hadn’t been dead so long that I didn’t have many memories of him, but my strongest were of sleight of hand and illusion. I still had a perfectly clear picture, even at seventeen, of being four and my father reaching behind my ear for a coin, myself laughing in delight.

Those were good times, but they weren’t enough to erase this.

Mom was gesturing towards the windows of our two-year-old sedan, the one we’d bought when we still had money, and giving commentary on our new home. She’d gone into super-mom mode, just like every time she talked to me since her therapy “breakthrough.” She had her happy face on. The one she used to give me the message that she wasn’t resentful her husband had spent every last dime we had on a stupid hotel and then gotten himself killed.

She didn’t have to be bitter if she didn’t want to. If it made her feel better. I was embittered enough for both of us. “There’s the Capital Building,” my mother chirped.

I glanced up at the bulbous golden tower high atop the Capital Building of my new home. “Wow.” It probably sounded as hollow as I felt but she didn’t say anything. She never said anything about my moods. Probably something the grief counselor had told her to do.

45 Secret Agent

TITLE: We Can't All Be Tiger Trainers
GENRE: Women's Fiction

The last time I called Claire, she hung up on me. I knew she was sick, but what the hell?

“The doctor thinks she’s having a breakdown,” her mom whispered as she led me down the hall of Claire’s childhood home, a Beacon Hill brownstone. But I didn’t believe her. Claire wasn’t the breakdown type.

Mrs. McKenna knocked on a door at the end of the hallway. “Claire? Malia’s here.” She smiled, gesturing for me to go in. I flipped back my ponytail and entered.

Claire was resting on a double bed. She didn’t sit up and greet me—weird. Her hair frizzed around glasses I didn’t recognize, an unsettling look. I was used to glossy curls and contacts.

“Hi,” she said. Even with a comforter on top of her, I could tell she’d lost some weight. She had to be sweltering.

“Hey, Claire.” I settled in on the edge of the bed. “How are you?" I picked up her hand and noticed the extremes between our skin tones: Claire’s, nearly translucent, and mine, dark brown.

“How do you feel?” I said.

“I’m really sick.”

I was not enlightened. “Some kind of flu?”

Claire closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. A tear dripped down her cheek and plopped on her sleeve. I watched it melt into the cotton.

So much had changed in just one month. I'd taken off for a Senior Week camping trip in the Sierras, the same day Claire left campus for a debate tournament.

44 Secret Agent

TITLE: Lament the Blade
GENRE: YA Fantasy

The falcon wouldn’t cooperate.

Anis tramped through the underbrush until she reached a clearing near the center of the great forest.

There he is.

She shivered, her mud-stained cloak offering little protection from the early morning chill. Dried brush snapped behind her.

Must be Bern.

"Shhh!" Without looking back, she pointed to the treetop. "You’ll scare him off."


The voice wasn’t Bern’s familiar old-man’s warble. It was deep and soft.

A guard come to take me back. Now I’m in for it.

She was supposed to stay inside the castle walls for the war wasn’t going well.

But the bird….

"He’s a falcon." She threw the last chunks of bread on the forest floor. Finally, she glanced at the man and froze. A Liene with long dark hair and great black wings wielded a sword. A mist that sparkled like gemstones twirling in sunlight surrounded him.

"Please,” she said and fell against the tree trunk, covering her face with both hands. “Don't kill me."

When he didn’t, she peered through her fingers.. He sheathed the sword and knelt before her, fingering the lion’s head clasp on her cloak.

“You’re Anis. King Gerrin’s daughter."

“You’re a mage.” She frowned. “And a Liene. A half-born.”

"Yes," he said, his narrow face pale. "How do you know?"

"Your lights are very bright, but not as bright as Verrick's."

The Liene stood abruptly. "My lights?"

"Verrick says only I can see those with the power,” she said, averting her eyes. “Not even the mages can."

43 Secret Agent

TITLE: Clear Blue and a Million
GENRE: YA/Crossover/Adventure

On a map, Summerbrook is the first dot on the dunes in New Hampshire. For years, the under-30 population called our sleepy coastal village Slumberbrook. Before the Aruba event (as everyone in town still calls it), nothing exciting had ever happened here. The crime rate … well, there was no crime rate. It was so boringly peaceful that even the police and fire departments were staffed by volunteers. The closest movie theater was ten miles north; the closest arcade was three miles south. By 11 p.m., Summerbrook was the darkest spot on earth. There were only two things that attracted anyone to this little town – the Spark It Up Café where young, old and everyone in between gathered, plus an exquisite stretch of beach that the other coastlines envied.

Then, in April of 1999, the Bradley’s trip to Aruba changed everything and this little town was no longer just a small dot on a state map. What started as a couple of simple high school newspaper stories about the trip eventually morphed into a book … which became a best seller … then a movie. Unfortunately, I only got to publish a couple of short school newspaper articles before and after the trip. Mr. Elliott decided which stories ran and which ones got back-burnered and he suggested that I re-write the second article – the one after the Bradleys returned – until it was white-washed and boring enough to escape any attention – everyone but me agreed that it was the best way to honor Jack Bradley’s passing.

42 Secret Agent

TITLE: Frosty
GENRE: YA (Fantasy)

I’d give anything on earth to be twelve again. Or thirteen. Even fourteen. But fifteen?


“Why not?” she asked, elbows pressing into the table. A bulb swayed above us, casting her face in shadows as the weak light reflected off her badge. A second Officer stood against the wall with his arms crossed, watching in silence.

I had no answer. Never did, never would. What use were words when no one believed anything I said?

I took a deep breath and started at the beginning again.

Summer vacation began seven hours, thirty-one minutes ago. It took twenty-seven minutes to walk home.

Seven hours, four minutes until now; until this singular, terrible moment.

My mother left to run errands, leaving me to watch my sister, Holly.

“Did that bother you?” Long fingers drummed; metallic echoes filled the room as her fingernails struck the table.

Six hours, fourteen minutes ago. After a snack, I sat down at my computer, Holly playing on the floor next to me as always. Five hours, fifty-six minutes.

Holly went to the bathroom. Five hours, fifty-three minutes. I went to the bathroom. Five hours, fifty-one minutes.

“You left her alone?”

Khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt, her school uniform she loved so much she even wore it on weekends. Dark hair, darker than mine, tied up with the pink bow my mother always forced on her. Brown eyes. Three feet, eight inches tall. Forty-one pounds. Six and a half years old today, June 25th. Our Christmas miracle, the baby sister I’d never wanted.

41 Secret Agent

GENRE: YA paranormal

Mr. Larkin and I were not going to make it through an entire semester
of sophomore English together. Not unless he decided to stop talking.

Day number three of the Shakespearian voyage had me white-knuckling my
desk just to keep from screaming that he was for seriously confused
about the difference between studying the Middle Ages and acting like
he came from them. For. Seriously.

In an attempt to fully tune him out, I ran an ear bud under my shirt
and cranked the volume on my iPod. Unfortunately, this meant I missed
the voice paging me over the classroom speaker until people started
looking at me. "Mr. Larkin, please release Nicole Dupont to Principal
Weaver’s office immediately."

Not good.

School had barely started for the year, I hadn’t met Weaver yet, and
as far as I knew, high school principals weren’t known for taking a
special interest in new kids. Except maybe for students like me.

Pretending like the entire class wasn’t staring at me, I hitched my
tote onto my shoulder and headed for the main office where a secretary
pointed me past her desk. I stopped in front of Weaver’s office and
smoothed out my skirt. Whatever this meeting was about, I had to make
a good impression on the guy. Had to. I took a deep breath before knocking.

40 Secret Agent

TITLE: A Horse Called Trouble
GENRE: Young Adult

Tara pressed her ragged sweatshirt to her nose. She turned, searching for the cause of the horrible stink that hovered around her. It was everywhere! Like a subway toilet that hadn’t been flushed in weeks. She held her breath and peered up at the giant white barns.

So, this is my punishment … horse therapy? To what? Clean up after them?

She rolled her eyes.

Slave labor.

Her jaw twitched, anger swelling inside.

I didn’t even steal Alissa’s purse! But just because she’s Alissa Jordan, everyone believes her!

She shouldn’t have been surprised though. It was just like Alissa.

Tara gripped her sweatshirt in a tight fist.

She should’ve tried harder; convinced Principal Jackman she hadn’t done it. Made him listen.

Her shoulders slumped.

Why bother? He doesn’t care.

She lowered her head. Mr. Jackman never believed her. He’d threatened to kick her out of Roseden Middle School before.

Tara snorted. Like Roseden Middle School is so elite; can’t have any riffraff.

She stared up at the barn.

So how is a horse supposed to change anything anyway?

A deep sigh swelled within her. Maybe alternative school was for the best. At least it wasn’t juvie hall … and she was away from Alissa.

A horse trumpeted, piercing the quiet morning. A flock of sparrows took flight from their roost nearby, noisily chattering their irritation. Tara’s pulse quickened. She stared at the barn’s open doorway; a dark, gaping mouth, waiting to expel the devil animal that shrieked inside.

39 Secret Agent

TITLE: Amazing Journeys
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction

I eagerly waited to be tucked into my cozy, sweet little bed and snooze away to glory. Then the lights went off and my eyes closed…to embark into another fascinating adventure, to have another riveting journey and to add another story to my collection.

At the precise moment that my eyes closed….all went awry beside me and Voila! I was in another world, another place and at another time. This time my ‘magic bed’ decided to send me to the heavenly abode, up above the sky. As I dreamily glanced around, I was momentarily spell-bound by the entrancing beauty of the ambience.

Wonderful milky and foamy spotless white clouds drifted by me and as I looked down at my feet, I was standing on one myself.

"Welcome to the "Skysi World" madam, where may I take my honor?" a sweet, warm voice with brilliant echoed out of nowhere. I glanced around and eventually realized that the white cloud on which I stood was actually speaking to me.

I faltered and stuttered but finally managed to say, "Wherever you…you…. may please. I wish to visit the chief area of this place if you may.”

"Very well. As you say, Madam, I take you to the ‘Central Skip-pie Hall’ where most of the sky world's hustle bustle is found." This time the voice had a mocking tone.

With bated breath, I finally embarked on the stimulating journey. Within five minutes, I reached the Hall while trying hard to balance myself during the speedy ride.

38 Secret Agent

Title: Fat. Geek. Rock Goddess.
Genre: Contemporary YA

I once got a Chinese fortune cookie that said, “The way you start a journey sets the tone for the entire trip.” Now, I don’t usually believe in fortune cookies or horoscopes and stuff like that, but if the first ten minutes of my first day at Roosevelt High were any sort of sign of how things were going to go for me this year, then I was in deep deep doo doo.

The bell signaling the start of the first day of ninth grade hadn’t even sounded yet and here I was, huddled in a stall of the girls’ bathroom, my extra-large butt wedged between a still un-graffitied wall and the metal flusher thingy that jutted out from the toilet. On the other side of the stall door, Tori McIntyre and her evil sidekicks, Anna and Katie, were admiring themselves in front of the long row of mirrors.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The only reason I was in the bathroom was because I had nowhere else to go after Mom dropped me off out front, kissed my head and said, Knock em’ dead Jenna. Mom was in her typical oh-my-god-I-was-supposed-to-be-at-the-office-an-hour-ago mode and had dropped me off a whole twenty-five minutes before the orientation assembly. Faced with almost a full half hour of free time in a new school where I had no friends, I did what any girl of my size would do. I hid in the bathroom.

37 Secret Agent

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

My body hit the water with an impact that knocked the breath from my lungs. I gasped for air and the current rushed in, burning my throat as I clawed frantically for survival. Panic engulfed me and spots of light exploded inside my head. Just when I thought my lungs would burst, fingers wrapped around my wrist, yanking me out of the water. As my head broke the surface it all became clear. I had died...again.

* * *

I stood on the end of the dock that jutted out towards the middle of the lake, fingering the silver eagle feather charm that hung on a chain around my neck. Mel was standing next to me. It was her familiar hand that had pulled me out of the water; out of my third life. I wasn’t surprised. After all, she had greeted me on my last two arrivals at the Obmil Center for Progression. It was my home away from home.

Everything looked the same as it had on my last two visits. The dock butted up against striated grey rocks, the precursors for the cliffs that fenced in most of the lake.

“Hi Elliot,” Mel gave a little smile, feet planted on the grey weathered wood. After two visits to the Obmil, she must suspect I wasn’t excited to be here for the third time. She tilted her head to the side, “How was your trip in?”


She paused for a second, then threw back her mane of curly red hair, laughing as little tears trickled out of the corners of her eyes. She knew that everyone who came to the Obmil through a water way was dry as a bone when they exited. It was one of the perks of being dead.

36 Secret Agent

TITLE: Apple of Discord

Face down in the pool, Victoria’s body was completely still. Short tendrils of hair spread out from her head like Medusa’s snakes. Her limbs had given in to the currents, no longer in control of her muscles. Not breathing in. Not breathing out. Under the water there was only silence. Dead man’s float.

Is this what it’s like to be dead? It’s so peaceful. But it’s boring.

A whistle sounded, filtering through the water. Victoria and the rest of her swim team quietly raised their heads to the surface.

“Breathe!” yelled Coach. They breathed. “Again!” Twenty sleek heads submerged again. This was coach’s version of breathing practice. He said he wanted everyone to develop their lungs for endurance.

Still once again, Victoria enjoyed the warmth and silence of the water until her mind wandered back to the night before.

“We lived in the same town all this time, and we never got together. She used to be my best friend. I just can’t believe she’s gone,” Mom had said on the way to the funeral.

Victoria could feel the panic rising again in her blood. She couldn’t breathe to calm herself, so she started counting. One… two… threeMom approached the coffin bawling—just like in the movies where the weeping widow clutches a hankie to cover her distorted mouth and dripping nose, except Mom’s wasn’t a hankie, it was wadded up toilet paper. Were they real tears? Well, they were real, but were they tears of sadness or regret? Thirteen… fourteen… fifteen…

35 Secret Agent

TITLE: Getting Real
GENRE: YA (Commercial)

I have been sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Le 123 Elysées (in Paris, France) for the last hour. It's half passed nine and we still haven't gone to dinner, a point of contention between my stomach and my family. Instead I have watched the giant wooden grandfather clock tick and tock and gong and bong until everyone in the vicinity of the lobby was well aware another hour had come and gone. Though most of the guests milling around on their way in and out didn't seem the least bit concerned by the late hour, with my seven year old sister passed out in my lap and my Mother frequently checking her watch it is clear time is passing us by, and not in a good way.

Every few minutes Mom gets up from besides me on the green suede couch and asks the concierge to ring up room 447 again. He politely obliges and though she turns her back away from me I can hear her hushed arguments as she makes empty threats to my Father (the words she uses typically result in the popular American colloquialism, "Pardon my French"). It's just another night in the Reynolds family.

It didn't matter much now, but we did have reservations at eight for the Brasserie down the Rue that we read about in the travel guide Dad bought us at the Charles De Galle arrivals terminal when he picked us up yesterday.

34 Secret Agent

TITLE: There’s No Place Like Home
GENRE: Women’s Fiction

“It’s funny, Beth, a year ago I expected to be dressing you in a wedding gown for another man.” Her mother’s breath warmed her back as the woman threaded another pearl button through its tight hole, stealing more of Beth’s diminishing breathing room.

“Mom,” warned Beth’s sister, Cynthia.

“Well, it’s true.”

“You promised.”

Beth kept her back to the warring women and took a deep, restricted breath, the scent of her nearby bouquet battling her mother’s perfume.

“Cut it out.” Her mother gave Beth’s back a light tap. “I can’t do up these impossible buttons when you horse around.”

Beth took halted, unfulfilling breaths. The church’s tiny upstairs dressing room seemed to lack oxygen.

Her mom squeezed the last button through its hole and spun Beth around, beaming, hand to her chest. “You look beautiful.”

Cynthia loped over in a fluttering silk robe. “Your Nash sure can sure pick a gown.”

A chestnut tendril tumbled across Cynthia’s forehead and Beth brushed it back in place. Her sister’s hair was perfect in a sexy, tousled way making Beth think of movie stars and champagne, and left her thinking she shouldn’t have bullied her own curly hair into a slick chignon. Beth lengthened her spine and dragged in a long, uneasy breath.

“Cynthia,” commanded their mother, “put on your dress.”

“If you need me—for anything—” Cynthia shot their mom a warning look, “I’ll be down the hall.” She wagged a finger at her mom. “Don’t mess with her head!”

33 Secret Agent

TITLE: Every Dog Has His Day
GENRE: Women's Fiction

I’ve always envied the way dogs live in the moment. They don’t dwell on the injustices of the past or the uncertainties of the future. They don’t worry about whether their water bowl is half empty or half full. It’s an attitude worthy of emulation. At least, that’s what I told myself when I got involved with Asher against my better judgment.

The first time I called was only a few days after my downfall, when it was inevitable that my family would soon learn I was Unemployed, but before I had the courage to make the confession. With each digit I dialed, I set aside my still-bleeding ego, the what ifs that couldn’t change history, the self-flagellation of failure. With canine determination, I shed the anxiety over how long my severance package would last, how I’d find another job in this market, how I’d pick up the pieces.

He answered the phone like he’d been expecting me, in a way that made me wonder if I’d always wanted to call him. That was Asher’s charm, or maybe just my insecurity.

“This is Jennifer – Jennifer Weisman - from the Acquisitions Department,” I said. But that wasn’t my identity anymore. Disoriented, I stumbled ahead. “Well, I…I used to be…You might remember me from…”
“I know who you are,” he said, in a voice that a phone sex operator would envy. It melted away my nervousness about calling, my self-consciousness about contacting someone from the office. He brought me into the moment.

32 Secret Agent

TITLE: Stream Pirate
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Every introduction was the same.

“Welcome to Radial Stream, Your Excellencies. I am King Tombolo Fan. May I present my daughter, Alluvial Fan.”


“Thank you for taking time out of your precious schedule to come gold-digging in a kingdom you would never ordinarily set foot in. My, your son is fatter than the portrait you sent of him. I’m king here, so put any thoughts of pomposity out of your overly-powdered-wigged head. To make sure you don’t forget that my daughter will one day be in my position, she alone will call me Tom while the rest of you may refer to me only as King Tombolo.”

At least that’s what I heard my father say. Made the day more interesting.

Today’s introduction took place on the dock reserved for the royal family in Daol Port. The hustling and bustling of the busy capital provided a nice hum against the half-mumbled speech of intent from the Duke of Branderbee’s son. He was a very nervous-looking fellow, half a foot shorter than me and at least forty pounds heavier. Apparently he had heard the version of my father’s introduction that I had, because as he spoke his eyes never left his shoes and his cheeks grew redder. The world’s future lay on shoulders like these. How reassuring.

“Sir, I-I-thanks, thank you, thank you for the chance to meet with Your Highnesses. I have been looking up-forward, forward to this meeting with the princess, whom I have heard so much about.”

31 Secret Agent

TITLE:Quest for the Holey Cheese
GENRE: Middle grade fantasy

I nibbled on a barley crumb clutched between my claws and glanced sideways at Silver Whiskers. The withered old rat lay in a lump next to me. His gray cheeks sagged, and his whiskers drooped in the dirt of the peasant’s hut.

I reached out and poked his dark furry chest to check for life. Looney old rat.

“Finkus,” he said in a raspy voice, his claws grasping the air.

“What?” I asked, quite tired of the whole ‘I’m dying’ routine.

His eyes, haunted by shadows, begged for an answer.

It was the same unspoken question every day. I scooped up another crumb and sighed. “Reginald still hasn’t returned.”

Silver Whiskers hung his head. His body quivered, and he groaned in the effort to inch forward. “Come close.”

I hobbled toward him, dragging my stubby leg across the reeds.

“Fink, you’re the only one to stay by me.”

“Only because—”

“Sh, youngster, don’t interrupt.”

I rolled my eyes. Even in his dying moments, ole Silver Whiskers had to scold; and, of course, it had to be me. I cursed the crippled leg that kept me prisoner in this hut, enslaved to his endless ramblings.

“You have proven yourself....” His body sagged, and a long, rattling breath pushed out from his belly.

I crept forward, curious. Despite the rejection of that bitter, bitter day, a part of me, deep down, longed to know the secret behind the quest—the one I hadn’t been picked for.

30 Secret Agent

TITLE: A Man To Dye For
GENRE: Women's Fiction Mystery

I wobbled into my apartment, legs wide, as if I’d spent the last seven hours on a horse. Instead, I’d suffered through the inhumane treatment masochistic women endured—a Brazilian wax. “It feels like I fell asleep while sunbathing…in stirrups.”

Cat, my sister, chuckled and set a mountain of packages onto my sofa, in the exact spot I eyed upon trudging through the door. “I’ll run down and get the rest.”

Thank God, ‘cause the idea of climbing that one flight of stairs brought tears to my eyes. I glanced at my recliner, but it sat way across the living area, then to the breakfast bar stools… Hell, no! The refrigerator caught my attention, and I remembered the unopened pint of Ben & Jerry’s Brownie Batter ice cream.

Cat reentered my apartment, as I leaned up against the counter and scooped out an enormous chunk of chocolaty Prozac.

“Giada, what are you doing?” she shrieked and nearly tripped over a shoebox. One that contained a hundred dollar pair of break-your-neck heels. “You can’t eat that. Fruits, vegetables and protein. That’s it.”

I rolled my eyes. There was no way I’d abide by her starvation techniques. “What does it matter? I’m not going on the show to gain Mr. Man’s attention.”

She stared into space then nodded. “You’re right. But don’t you dare gain weight and have all these clothes not fit. We're leaving tomorrow.”

29 Secret Agent

TITLE: Dragons Beginning
GENRE: YA Fantasy-Adventure

Concentrate. Feel the magic. Control it.

The words came back to me, repeating in my head. I wanted to scream in frustration at the firepit in front of me. My knees hurt from the packed dirt, but moving to the other side where the wooden floor began wouldn’t help. I’d get splinters too, instead of only bruises. The door opened behind me and my mother bustled in. Her flowery perfume hit me first, then the soft sound of her slippers on the wood.

I cringed. Hours had passed since she’d left, and yet, there was still no fire burning to cure the herbs. My magic would not respond today.

My mother, Adrial – the most powerful sorceress in all the land of Drakos Dnal – just put her basket on the counter and walked over to me. Her cool hand brushed the back of my neck, pushing my hair into order. “It’s all right,” she said.

“My grand sorcerer magic is never going to come.”

“Robby, what have I told you?” she walked around the firepit, facing me across the wood.

Hanging my head, I mumbled the answer. “The longer it takes, the more powerful I’ll be.”

“That’s right.” She turned back to the table, unpacking the herbs and flowers she’d gathered in the meadows a little way from our house.

I turned back to the wood in the firepit, staring hard. If I couldn’t get the fire started with my magic, maybe I could glare it into combustion.

28 Secret Agent

TITLE: Cupid
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

I hate breaking up loving couples, especially first thing in the morning. It’s like waking up without coffee – painful. I study this new couple’s destiny slip, or D-slip as we call them. It’s definitely a Never slip. Mark and Jenna are destined never to be together. Too bad no one told them that before they met.

I always wear my black uniform when I start my day with a Never slip. Black lycra jumpsuit, black knee high boots, black trench coat and black silk gloves. A gesture of mourning for the dead relationship.

After I’m dressed I step into the hall and close the door behind me. My room is on the top floor of the Mansion, in the residential wing, which means I can’t avoid running into the other Cupids. Not that I don’t like them, I do, I just get tired of pretending Never slips don’t bother me.

“Morning, Heart.”

I look up and see Griffin bounding towards me. I sigh and present him with my best fake smile.

“Hey, Griffin. How’s it going?”

“Great. I’m doing my first separation today.”

Griffin is an Intermediate Cupid, which means he deals with temporary break-ups and make-ups of mortal couples.

“A separation, nice. What’s your plan?” I ask.

Griffin’s face lights up.

“Well, I think the guy might like one of his co-workers more than his girlfriend, so I thought I’d just have him cheat on her.”

I shake my head. Common rookie mistake.

“Griffin, you’re only supposed to separate them temporarily."

27 Secret Agent

TITLE: Sparks Fly Sometimes: Confessions of a Rock Princess
GENRE: Women's Fiction / Humor

I wanted to be a rock star from the minute I saw Laurie Partridge singing background vocals on "I Think I Love You." No matter how many times my older sister, Steph, told me it would never happen - not in a million years - I always believed my dream would come true.

I tapped my foot against the leg of the chair as I waited for my parents to get home. Ria and Morgan, who were 11 and 8, kept poking their annoying heads in the living room asking what was going on.

"Nothing," I said. "I just need to talk to Mom and Dad alone for a while. Is that too much to ask? If you guys steer clear, maybe I'll take you to the movies this weekend." That worked for about ten minutes until they discovered a new game; sticking their arms in the room, waving, and running away giggling like a couple of lunatics.

I looked out the front window and saw the car driving up the street. My foot-tapping increased to warp speed. “Breathe,” I told myself, “in and out, in and out.” Ria and Morgan were now camped out under the dining room table.

“Hi, Mom, Dad,” I said, as they walked through the door.

“Hi, Jen. Is everything alright?” said Mom. Dad gave me a kiss on the forehead.

“Yeah, fine. Hey, when you guys get a minute, do you think maybe we could talk?”

“Sure, honey,” she said. “Let me just set these groceries down, and we’ll be right in.”

“I’d rather do it in my room where it’s private,” I said, nodding towards Ria and Morgan’s “tent.”

“Fine, honey, we’ll be right there,” she said, glancing at my dad with that “uh-oh, something’s up” look.

26 Secret Agent

Check Mate

Multi-cultural Romance

Bishop Eustace Prep Library, Sophomore Year

He lugged the chessboard, pieces, clock, and his short pimply self to slaughter again.

“Thank you Rebekah for the lesson. You played great.” Playing the New Jersey Junior Champ felt more like a lesson than a game.

“Shhh.” The librarian lingered over them like the grim reaper.

“You don’t have enough fight in you, James, nor enough knowledge.” He leaned across the table for a handshake.

“See you.” She rose and swiveled, showing off a cheeky Lacrosse outfit, which barely covered her cute bottom. She tapped rubber cleats across linoleum squares and glancing back flashed a metallic Cheshire cat smile.

“Good bye, Rebekah.” He trembled, just above a whisper.


The princess never gets a shhh. Why am I so lucky?

He wasn’t the evil student who stuck chewing gum under this maple table or sprinkled salt in the librarian’s coffee.

His secret desire to win one game and her heart never came true, perhaps because he said and did nothing. Instead, they eventually graduated and then lost each other into life’s black hole. She became a warrior of more than sixty-four squares. He tried to bring peace to a crazy world, teach a little Physics at NYU, and master the game of chess.

Present Day, May 4, Baghdad, 1202 hours

Today might be her last on Earth. She wondered why. Intuition or premonitions about enemy placements supplemented her . . .

25 Secret Agent

TITLE: No Pet is Worth All This!
GENRE: MG Contemporary Fantasy

It all started with a cold.

I had just climbed out of bed to get more Kleenex when I stepped on something painfully hot. I bit back a scream, flicked on the light and cringed. My big toe looked like a ripe tomato.

I scanned my floor. Dirty jeans, a box of graham crackers, Claire’s watch, some cough drops. I didn’t see anything that could turn my toe into a swollen vegetable until I poked through the piles of used, soggy Kleenex. The rock Aunt Myk had given me five days before was buried under the third wad. It was glowing.

That’s right, glowing. Like the glow sticks police officers give to little kids on Halloween. Except this light was neon blue. And now that I’d uncovered it, it was bright enough to light up my room.

Even though my toe sent a thousand warnings to my brain, I reached for the rock. Seconds later, my hand felt like it had scraped the sun.

I rushed to the bathroom and ran cold water over both burns. It didn’t help. Instead, the icy spray almost made me puke.


Sick enough to fall asleep less than three minutes later in a mysteriously lit-up room while my hand and foot continued to throb. Obviously too sick for school the next day.

I decided to go anyway. I had to show that rock to Jared. He was the only one I knew who might understand how a rock could light up rooms and burn people.