Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Whole New Level of Pushing Through

Many of you have been following my blog for a long time--since before I was agented, since before I'd gone on submission with not one or two or three or four, but FIVE novels that didn't sell. I wrote a lot of posts about persevering, pushing through, never giving up.

Signing my contract with Tor Teen was definitely an arrival--a moment long awaited for, long dreamed of, long worked toward. But it was by no means the end. The hard truth is that perseverance and determination and chutzpah are just as necessary after you've landed your first book deal. Because--and here's the kicker: writing doesn't get any easier.

I mean, you all know that writing is hard, right? This writerly journey isn't for wimps! And getting your first book out there doesn't mean you're suddenly a pro who doesn't have to do more than blink one languid eye to produce the next novel.

As most of you know, I signed a two-book deal, and the second book was listed as "Untitled YA". True confession: I was immediately intimidated. Why? Because SOMEONE WANTED TO BUY A BOOK I HADN'T EVEN DRAFTED YET. That may sound like a dream to some of you, but for me it was a few breaths shy of a nightmare. One of my pre-published fears was that I would find myself writing a book that people were waiting for--and I wouldn't be able to do it.

That's a bit of a scary monster to overcome, yes?

Sure enough, my novel-in-progress has been a slogfest. I've groaned and wept and gnashed and cursed and stared and snarled my way through this process, day after day. I started the second draft before finishing the first because it was such a mess I couldn't write the denouement. Then I started the third draft when I was halfway through the second because I'd gone way off track again.

I think I'm finally on track--and EXCITED!!--about my new story, which will be out September, 2020. Which, considering how quickly the past year has zipped by, isn't that far away.

All that to say--hard work is hard work. Regardless of whether you're doing it before or after you're agented, or before or after you're published, it is what it is. Writing stories is glorious and fulfilling. It's also exhausting, overwhelming, and brain-sucking. 

Sometimes it makes me cry.

Sometimes it makes me feel like I should never have decided to be a writer.

But at the end of the day? It makes me feel empowered. Creative. Purposeful. And proud of myself for pushing through the hard bits.

So my mantra on this side of the journey remains the same: Never Give Up. I'm still living that, and I expect I always will. Nothing worth doing is easy; nothing worth sharing is effortless. Sharing our words with the world is a high calling, and we've got to be prepared to dig in until we're barely standing.

And then we can eat some chocolate or queso or or or MOON CHEESE (my new favorite snack) and keep going.

Believe in yourself! Believe that, when you are flat on your back and ready to quit, tomorrow you'll have what it takes to write another page, another scene, another chapter.

Hooray that we're all in this together! Hooray that we can rely on each other when we're feeling like we can't do this anymore!

Deep breath. Eyes wide open. Jump back in.


Monday, January 28, 2019

And we've got some winners!

First of all, HUGE APPLAUSE for every person who entered this contest. It takes courage to throw your work in front of a group of peers. Bravo!

And now, without further ado, here are Amy's winners:



THE PRIZE: Ms. Stapp would like to see your query and the first five chapters of your manuscript.



THE PRIZE: Ms. Stapp would like to see your full manuscript.

IMPORTANT: Please email me at for specific submission instructions.

Congratulations, all!

Secret Agent Unveiled: AMY STAPP

Huge thanks and all the virtual chocolate go to our incredible Secret Agent for this month, Amy Stapp of Wolfson Literary

Amy's Bio:

Amy Stapp received her BA from Samford University and MA from Georgia State University before beginning her publishing career at Macmillan, where she was an editor for seven years and had the privilege of working with bestselling authors such as Katie McGarry, Shelley Noble, and Amber Lynn Natusch, among others. Amy joined Wolfson Literary in 2018 and is actively building her list, with interest in women's fiction, mystery, suspense, historical fiction, young adult, and select nonfiction. She is particularly drawn to well-paced prose and smart, multidimensional characters.

What I'm looking for: 

On the adult side I'm seeking suspense, women's fiction, light magical realism, and historical fiction. In YA I love romance, mystery, historical, and coming-of-age. I'm particularly eager to find smart, "unputdownable" YA thrillers and complex, multigenerational women's fiction.

Thank you for your time and talent, Amy!

Winners forthcoming.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Fricassee

I have to admit it--I've missed the bustle of the Secret Agent Contests! It's been great this week meeting new folks (mostly on Twitter--yay, Twitter!) and feeling the energy and excitement buzzing about from those who were entering for the first time.

Also? That same, wonderful spirit I'm always gushing about remained steadfast on Monday when submissions came to a grinding halt with a CONTEST IS FULL message only 8 minutes after the window opened.


But nobody yelled! Nobody snarked! Nobody bombarded me with passive aggressive, victim-mentality emails. People asked questions, I got in touch with my programmer, he fixed the problem, and on we went.


I can't say it enough: The online writing community is incomparable. I'm honored to be part of it.

It's thrilling, too, to meet a whole new generation of aspiring authors. This blog has been around for ages (it'll be 11 years in April!), and many of our "oldies" (a term of endearment, I assure you), have gone on to get agents and book deals, or else they've moved on to shinier pastures (if pastures can be shiny). Mind you, there are lots of you long-timers who are still here, still in process, still reaching for the stars. AND I AM SO GLAD! But I'm also glad to be meeting new writers.

For all who are new--here are some ways to learn more about me and about this blog.

To read about Secret Agent Contests and our in-house critique sessions:

To read the 3-part story of the Real Me behind my anonymous Authoress persona:

GO HERE (part 1)

AND HERE (part 2)

AND HERE (part 3)

To learn more about Jillian Boehme, author:

To preorder STORMRISE:

To receive the FREE e-book AGENT: DEMYSTIFIED (for querying writers):

And to subscribe to my AUTHOR NEWSLETTER (and receive a FREE audiobook):

I think that about covers it! Welcome, welcome, welcome, and best of luck on your writing endeavors.

Next up: Monday we'll reveal our Secret Agent and also announce the winners of this contest! Make sure you've subscribed to the blog (see right sidebar), and then you'll never miss a thing.

See you then! Happy weekend, all!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Secret Agent Contest: Critique Guidelines

Okay, everyone--grab your red pencils and a big mug of tea! Here are 50 offering that need your eyeballs.

Remember to keep an eye out for our Secret Agent, who will be leaving feedback for ALL 50 ENTRIES some time between today and Sunday! Do your thoughts line up with our Secret Agent's? Leave yours and then come back and check!

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.

January Secret Agent #50

TITLE: Child of Night
GENRE: YA Fantasy

“Give me back my phone, you sea urchin,” I growled at Roland as he snapped ridiculous selfies.
Roland moved the phone high up in the middle of the isle, way out of my reach. “Well, Avery, if you can’t tolerate oceanic creatures maybe you should change seats.”

I silently cursed my foster mom for stopping for coffee on the way to the school. Five minutes earlier and I would have had the back seat of the bus all to myself. However, because of her caffeine addiction, I now found myself wedged between the bus window and the most annoying boy in my class for the next half-hour until we arrived at our field trip’s destination in Salem, Massachusetts. I continued to remind myself it would be less than a year before I could turn my tiny savings into a car and drive myself but each agonizing moment made that day seem farther and farther away.

From the second we stepped on to the bus, Roland made it clear that he was not going to change seats. But neither was I. Each of us wanted the back seat and we were both willing to fight for it. His idea of fighting was apparently to be the most annoying person on the planet until I got fed up. I was not going to sit at the front just because this jerk decided to claim my spot, no matter the idiotic behavior I had to put up with.

January Secret Agent #49

TITLE: Here Comes the Sun
GENRE: YA Historical

Spring 2000

I arrive at Heathrow Airport with bags in my arms and under my eyes. The six-thousand-hour flight from Chicago was meant to be a time to “recharge our batteries” and prepare for a full day of travel, according to lead chaperone Mr. Parsons. What actually occurred was quite the opposite, largely due to my poor seat location between my best friend and chaperone. And, possibly, an ill-timed sleeping pill.

My senior class from Naperville Academy has been preparing for the spring break trip to England since the very first day of school. The weekly meetings at the butt-crack of dawn every Monday were used to prepare us on English culture, transportation and history. The main lesson I learned after all those Mondays is that we are never ever to be late to check in and that The Tube is the British version of a subway and is apparently not whatever I initially imagined – a blue teleportation device.

What I didn’t learn from Mr. Parsons and Mr. Marks every Monday I eventually learned from my mom, who has never stepped foot on British soil. Don’t eat the meat. Wear bright colors. And don’t piss off the Beefeaters. Now, if The Tube had my imagination churning, just imagine where I went with Beefeaters. It was a sad day when I learned they were simply part of the Queen’s Guard, which is a far cry from giants throwing cows into their mouthes one after another.

“Nat, come on. Ya gotta move," my best friend Krista says.

January Secret Agent #48

TITLE: The Witch and the Demon
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba’s soaked dress clung to her skin as she ran through the moonless night. The lake water left from her near-drowning had crystalized into icicles. If she fell, she might not get up again. Keep moving. Get far away from the witchfinder, may he be reincarnated as a drunkard’s chamber pot.

Heedless of direction, she climbed up the mountain, away from her village. A wolf’s cry pierced the air. Ebba froze.

The forest was dead silent again, eerily devoid of owls or bats. An ancient demonic invasion had left this place magic-cursed. Ebba shivered. Most wolves avoid humans. Except for the red-eyed ones living deeper in the forest. Anabiel help me.

She refused to be devoured like her mother. Perhaps she could sneak back to steal a knife and some food. She’d been too panicked in her flight, afraid the witchfinder might wake up…

First, he’d poked pins into the mottled red birthmark covering her left cheek. Giant hands had held her down, his nails filthy and his liver spots as big as spiders. His too-close breath had reeked of onions.

“Confess,” the witchfinder had ordered after every pin. Each time, she’d refused. They’d kill her once she confessed.

The second day had been the hot iron. This morning, the dunking. Through a blur of watery suffocation, her most distinct memory was, peculiarly, the smell of the sausages. Mad Gill had sold them to bystanders. Her pleas with her neighbors had been met with disdain.

No, she wasn’t going back.

January Secret Agent #47

TITLE: The Veil: Whispers from Darkness
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction

Michael Reid had more than just the underbrush to worry about.

   His breath hung in front of him in perfect white clouds, huffed out from aching lungs that begged for a break. Running had never been the sort of exercise that he sought on a daily basis instead relying on other extracurricular activities that involved a partner of the female persuasion.  The situation that he had found himself in for the last month was, to say the least, not where he had been expecting his life to go. He held a rather high social status for a human, which was rare among his kind. Those not born in the Veil were often considered the dirt under a ladder. The worst that he have ever been accused of was flirting with a married woman. Not something like this. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to remember his warm, comfortable flat where he had all the finer things life had to offer waiting on him such as his designer suits and 1700s dated bottles of Chateau Margaux.

    A thorny branch smacked itself across his right cheek, bringing him back to the reality of the ragged man he had become since going on the run two weeks prior. The cuts stung as the tiny needle-like thorns cut shallowly into his skin. Inwardly he chided himself on allowing his body to become so ragged. However, logical thinking often took the backseat to panic.

January Secret Agent #46

TITLE: When I Know Your Name
GENRE: Adult Romantic Suspense

Run. Get away. Now!

Listening to that inner voice, the primal thing that is instinct, Elena turned and ran. Flooded with adrenaline and vision cleared, her mind sharpened only the essential senses. Head down andfists pumping, she gained crucial momentum.

Her early morning alarm seemed a thousand years away, as was her decision to go for a run to cleanse her body of the wine she had polished off with Charlotte.

That was her first mistake.

Her second mistake was leaving her flat without her phone, assuming it was tucked in her pocket.
As she stared into the face of the stranger, she remembered him. She’d noticed him standing across the street from her apartment building on a couple of occasions. She’d discussed it, but nobody believed it was anything to do with her. But she did. Deep down, she believed it was everything to do with her, but she’d brushed it aside not wanting to make the same mistake as before. Stupid, given her family’s circumstances.

She hadn’t seen him approach as she stretched, ready to start into an easy jog, hadn’t noticed him blocking her path as she looked up to see him walk towards her. She wasn’t sure if it was the slight sneer in his smile or the car that slowed in the road behind him, but something wasn’t right.

Something was very wrong.

She bolted up the steps to her apartment building and he matched her speed with startling efficiency.
‘Not so fast.’

January Secret Agent #45

TITLE: By Virtue Fall
GENRE: YA Apocalyptic Fantasy

Mama always said freedom could be found inside Haven’s walls. When we’d sit together on the porch at night, mending Papa’s casting nets to the glow of fireflies and chirrup of katydids, she’d weave stories she’d picked up in the market: that a temple in Haven’s central city had a steeple so tall it scraped the clouds; that lordlings there lived in palaces and held parties in rooms dipped in gold; that shiny black locomotives raced across metal tracks, moving faster than any horse could run.

But I never believed her.

What kind of freedom could be confined by walls?

I was naive to ever mistake shelter for confinement.

Tribulation rises over the southern landscape like a metal tidal wave, seconds from crashing onto the ghost town below. My squad shouldn’t be this close to the wall. If Haven’s knights catch us they won’t hesitate to shoot. But we haven’t found a usable voltic cell in months, so the abandoned research facility inside their “dreg free” zone may be our last chance to get one before my brother’s heart stops ticking.

I grip my battle axe and lead my squad through the dusty streets. All around, the city’s roofs are caved in, with glass shards clinging to their windows like cracked teeth. My metal arm rattles from the tension coiled in my shoulders as I step into Tribulation’s shadow. No going back to camp empty handed today. Ari won’t have to pull another brave face to shield me from his disappointment.

January Secret Agent #44

GENRE: YA Contemporary

If you want something, take it.

This was what Amy chanted to herself as she stepped behind the block in lane six. The 100 free was the last event at Swim Philadelphia’s August Invitational. If she didn’t qualify for Junior Nationals during this race, come September she’d be forced to enroll in her local high school. If she did qualify, she’d spend freshman year on scholarship at Heartdale Prep, the school for elite-level swimmers that her three older siblings attended.

Not getting into Heardale wasn’t an option. Amy’s favorite Heartdale shirt, the one she slept in every night, was signed “you can do it!” by a freshman she met at one of Cat’s swim meets when she was eleven. Every night before bed, she watched YouTube videos that showed off the school’s campus. Every morning before getting up, she whispered Heartdale’s motto, “Anyone can be an Olympian,” into her pillow.

Cheers bounced across the pool deck. Banners waved and cameras popped, but Amy’s gaze stayed locked on the athletes in the water. The girl in lane five flipped, leading her heat into the fourth and final lap of the race. Her streamline was rigid, her dolphin kicks tight and powerful. Amy didn’t know her name, but she knew the desperation on her face. It wasn’t the shallow desire that played, sharp and hopeful, across your skin for a few months. This was a want that burrowed deep into your brain when you were young, shaping your face and the bones behind it.

January Secret Agent #43

GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Kali knew that one day the furry curiosity would be the death of her. Still, the world’s last living cat was the closest thing she had to a friend. And you didn’t leave your friends with wolves.

Closing the steel-plated door of her closet-sized room, Kali turned on the tips of her toes. The reinforced flooring didn’t squeak, yet within a single step, her heart slammed against her chest. She bit down to stifle the scream in her throat. Then she braced, recognizing the intruder half-hidden in the dim hall.

The night nurse, Shawna, leaned in a doorframe three away with her arms crossed. The wicked grin she wore whenever the children weren’t around turned her lips more down than up, and the tight leather crew-neck jacket told from where she came.

The leather wasn’t synthetic, spun from the fabricated composites that the echelon wore. Instead it was real, from a tanned cow’s hide. With cows being more myth than reality, only the tierless scavenged such ancient rags.

“Why are you hiding it?” Shawna asked.

“It’s the Night of Crusades.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m keeping Sparrows away from the reception.” Kali glanced over her shoulder.

“Mr. Roake will want it there.”

“I’m not so sure.” Looking at Shawna was like looking in the mirror, only instead of seeing her reflection, Kali saw an evil twin. Shawna had the exact same raven hair and bright eyes, identical to Mr. Roake’s late wife and why they were hand-picked to nurse the morning and the night.

January Secret Agent #42 -- REMOVED

(genre not included in this contest)

January Secret Agent #41

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Verity sank deeper into the chair with the tattered fabric on the arm. She wound the familiar threads around her index finger, waiting for Principal Weaver to get on with it. Outside, the wind tossed brilliant orange maple leaves around in the rain.

Principal Weaver folded her hands over her desk blotter and spoke. “In your favorite seat, I see.”

Verity let out a little breath of laughter. “What can I say?” she said, her hands going palm up. “Your office is just so cozy.” She crossed her legs.

"Tell me what happened,” said Principal Weaver.

“The fire alarm went off. A hallway was destroyed. And here I am.”

“Yes, yes,” said the woman with a sigh. “I can see you are going to be as cooperative as usual.” Verity wondered if it was appropriate for a principal to show such a tendency towards sarcasm, as the woman turned to the boy sitting to her right.

“Okay, William. What’s your story?”

Verity regarded him. Until then she’d tried not to look at him, but now she figured a glance couldn’t hurt. Okay, maybe more than a glance.

His brown hair picked up the pallid light coming in from the window, his careless waves somehow perfect. She noted accents of blonde and red, then studied safer surroundings: a vase of fake flowers, a framed photo of two smiling kids, a miniature U.S. flag aside a miniature Massachusetts state flag. Verity began inspecting the inspirational posters on the wall when Will spoke.

January Secret Agent #40

GENRE: YA Fantasy

My magic burned within me. I pressed a hand tight against my chest to calm its nettling.

It was a perfect day for wishing a young witch-in-training farewell—and I intended to keep it that way.

I took in great gulps of air and blew out, imagining I was extinguishing a candle—a method taught to me by Madam Ben Ammar. The stubborn flame retaliated, scorching my throat and causing a dark cloud to hover above the crowd before us.

Papa’s hand on my shoulder helped tear my eyes from the sky. His eyes, warm but narrowed with concern, were the same shade of blue.

“Do you want to leave?” he asked in my ear.

I shook my head, my fingers curled tight against the edges of my book. The milkman raised a fiddle into the air, garnering whoops and hollers. As he started up a jumping, lilting reel, the crowd reformed in perfect synchronicity in two neat lines for dancing.

Distraction is often useful in tempering one’s magic, Master Saint-Pierre had often told me.

I pressed the spellbook into Papa’s grasp. “I’ll see you soon.”

His freckled brow lined, and his gaze darted from me to the dancers. “If—if you say so, dear.”

His worry over me cut like my magic did. But I was happy; defiantly so, utterly content; my painful, rowdy magic aside. And I was going to prove it.

January Secret Agent #39

TITLE: The King's 100
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Romance

After our parents died, I learned to handle my relationship with my sister the same way I handled a glass microscope slide - with as few fingerprints as possible and an irrational fear that one misstep would shatter everything. When I approached her office door, a voice spoke from speakers embedded inside my ears. “Princess Piper, it’s time for you to review your match details. Queen Evelyn sent me an alert to remind you at the this hour.”

“Thanks, Chip. I just need to talk to her about something first.”

A blue glow from the underside of my left wrist indicated that Chip was processing my words and communicating with my sister’s own Bio-System. “Dottie informs me that Queen Evelyn is currently busy.”

I sighed. “Chip, she’s always busy.”

Footsteps pounded behind me and I turned to see a patrol officer passing by.

“Princess Piper, your heart rate has accelerated and you’re not participating in aerobic activity. I suggest you return to your room to review your-”

“Chip, do me a favor and go silent for the next twenty minutes or so, ok?”

“Yes, Princess.”

I didn’t need Chip’s voice in addition to my own voice in my head, urging me to abort my mission. The metal door slid open as a service droid exited Evelyn’s office. I stepped through the threshold before it closed again. I tilted my chin down. “Your majesty.”

“What do you want, Piper?” asked my sister. Her office smelled like copper and mint.

January Secret Agent #38

TITLE: Blood Numbers
GENRE: YA Dystopian

I’ve had nightmares about my Blood Test Day before. None of them started like this. None of them prepared me for the nightmare of reality.

When a Technician is on my porch, in his white lab coat and black bag in hand, my mind goes blank. I blink over and over, willing myself to wake up, yet here he stands before me with unnatural precision and a purposeful stare.

Stitched over the pocket of his coat, the giant red letters “DMR” stand out against all the white, like blood seeping from a wound. My sweaty palm slides against our wobbly door handle.

Why is he here? It’s June. I’m not yet sixteen. My birthday isn’t for another month. Surely, this Technician is mistaken, or lost, but the Division of Medical Resources doesn’t make mistakes.

“Aston Vazeto?”

His pronunciation of my Hungarian name is close enough, so I nod. He eyes my body in a way that makes me cross an arm over my chest. I hide behind my hair as it inches over my face, hopefully masking my shock and fear.

This Technician is older than I expected, and surely too old to be donating. His hair is greying on the sides and worry lines linger on his brow. When he flashes an eerie donor smile, my heart quickens. All citizens like me are donors to some degree, but he looks too healthy to still be donating at his age. Why, when I’m alone, weeks away from my Blood Test Day, is he here- without notification or preamble?

January Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Neither Fish nor Fowl
GENRE: Adult Mystery

Ashly plays with the rag dolls, his Aunt Teresa made for him with love and detail, 5 birthdays ago. The dolls are small, can be hidden quickly behind a pillow or under a cushion should his father, Frank, enter the room. Ashly is too old for dolls, but they have become a talisman, a quiet rebellion, and a comfort. He hears Papa’s footfalls in his study above. They are rhythmic, like a distant jungle drum. The drumming settles into a headache of anxiety. Papa paces when he has a pronouncement, and the pronouncements come when he has decided that something, anything, must be done with his disappointing son.

Ashly watches Teresa on the settee. She’s trying to knit, but with each footfall of her brother Frank, she drops a stitch and murmurs, “Drat.” She puts the wool aside and picks up her ever-present hanky.
Frank calls from the landing, “Teresa.” The anger in his voice startles. Teresa jumps with a fright, and within a minute she stands in the doorway of his study. Her doughy body is encased in a dress that squeezes her fat with the same relish with which she wrings her lace hanky.

“Frank?” she demurs.

“Come in and close the door.” He clips each word.

She eases the heavy mahogany door behind her.

Ashly has followed and presses one ear against the cool wood of the now ajar door. In spite of his small size and feminine manner, he has courage.

January Secret Agent #36

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

I swore on the day she died that Mom would never disappear.

I’ve kept true to my vow.

She loved spring’s baby lime-green leaves, but hated forsythia yellow. The fact that the leaves still unfurl and the yellow’s still ugly, but she’s gone, kills me. Especially today.

Hurrying down my street, I pull off some forsythia blossoms from the bushes in a neighbor’s yard, crushing the petals. Getting home from school has already taken too long, and the trembling went into double time two blocks back.

I need to be there.

Two more houses to go. The front door key ready, gripped in my sweaty hand. My heart pounds against its cage, trying to escape.

Then, the familiar whine from Daisy, Mr. Shapiro’s cockapoo, slows my steps. The red door of my house is so close, but Daisy’s up on her arthritic back legs, her front ones scrabbling at the low fence.
My need pulls at me, but Daisy’s wheezing pulls at me, too.

I stuff my keys into my jeans pocket and toss the smashed petals.

“Just a short one this time, Daze.” I lean over, let her lick my wrist before I rub behind her right ear, down to her jaw and scratch away. If dogs could purr, Daisy would be a purrer.

Mom and Mr. Shapiro used to compare Daisy and me since we were the exact same age. Daisy ran at seven months, I couldn’t crawl. Daisy was housetrained; I was in diapers. We both hated baths.

January Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Con Me Once
GENRE: Adult commercial action-adventure

Raunch sat on the edge of the pool with his foot on the drowning man’s back and wondered if he had time for a smoke. Turns out you really can drown someone in three feet of water­—if you knock him out first.

He thought it would be more difficult. Not the physical punch—he was as tough as they come, if he dared say so himself—but the emotional wallop. Despite an extensive criminal record for a variety of minor offenses, he’d never whacked anyone before, and he expected a rush of fear or horror or…something. Instead, he felt numb. The way he saw it, if the mob wanted this poor guy dead, he wasn’t a stellar citizen to begin with, and when you’re hungry and months behind on the rent, well, the truth is, money makes a great anesthetic.

The neighbor’s hound dog howled a warning. Raunch jerked, splashing water over the top of his grungy canvas sneaker. He cursed under his breath and scrambled to his feet. The scraggly brown hedge separating the two suburban houses rustled. The darkness, interrupted only by the dim glow of a dozen solar lights tracing the kidney-shaped outline of the pool, obscured the source.

The rustling grew louder, more violent. Raunch tapped the cigarette back in its pack and pulled out his gun instead. Tonight had been easy so far—too easy. He should’ve known better. It looked like things were about to change.

January Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Eva’s Soul
GENRE: YA Speculative Fiction

Eva realized that playing dead was the only escape shehadn’t tried yet.

She’d tried everything else—prying open the window, sliding the hinges out of the door, and even barging from the door the second it opened. She usually made it downstairs, and once nearly made it outside, but the soldiers in green uniforms always caught her. Then they went wild on her.
She stared at the concrete walls and rocked back and forth on her heels. If only she had a bit of that old magic her parents had whispered about, she could use it to break out.

The door of her cell bashed open. She dropped to the icycement floor and closed her eyes. Soon it would be time to play dead—just one more beating.

She gritted her teeth. She’d do whatever it took to save her sister.

As the boots and fists came at her, she curled up into a ball. To protect her teeth from breaking, she wrapped her arms over her head and tucked her knees up to her forehead. To stop shaking she tensed all her muscles from her face to her feet.

Not reacting made them go away sooner, so she did her usual trick—she pictured each pain receptor lighting up, shooting its little signal towards her brain, and then bouncing around her skull. That’s all pain was—all she was—electric signals, chemicals, blood and bone. Nothing more.

January Secret Agent #33

GENRE: YA Fantasy

White fabric slapped against rafters as an arid breeze gusted through the open window. Phoebe stiffened—the wedding dress arrived this morning with a messenger and its presence mocked her every move, a stark reminder of the realities she faced tomorrow. Her skin crawled at the thought of General Skahill’s hands on her body, and a strangled noise came from the back of her throat. The only place that dress deserved to be was buried deep in the nearest dung pile.

With shaking hands, it only took a few moments to pack her scant wardrobe of threadbare tunics and the one cloak she’d been allowed to keep of her mother’s. Her heart twisted as she slammed the chest’s lid shut and slid down the ladder from the loft. She needed to get away, even if just for a few moments. Toes digging into the worn dirt floor, she dashed outside and glanced toward the trees that towered beyond the village. The forest beckoned her—it always did.

At the outskirts of the village, she hesitated to ensure no soldiers were posted on the road before sprinting toward the twisted trees. Ducking into the dark shelter of the forest’s canopy, she careened down a well tread trail leading to the river. When she reached the riverbank, she barely slowed as she yanked off her tunic and dove in. Icy water enveloped her, a shock that sucked the air from her lungs, and Phoebe’s eyes drifted shut as her body sunk toward the silty riverbed.

January Secret Agent #32

TITLE: The Unfairness of Us
GENRE: Adult Suspense

   I’d love to start counting right about now, maybe even out loud.  But I know well enough to reserve my coping skills. After all, no one wants to realize they are trying my patience. Instead, I am genuinely attempting to stay cool, calm, and collected.
    “Do you need help with your bags?” the middle-aged, impeccably dressed woman enquires in far too sweet a voice. Before I can answer, she predictably adds, “Not that I could assist you, but I’m sure someone here might.”
    I reply firmly, “I’ll be fine.” A lie in the grand scheme of things, but concerning carrying up a duffle bag, a backpack, and my cross-body bag, yeah, I got this.
    She ushers me to a mahogany staircase, which is so clean, and substantial that they appear to have been installed in the nick of time for my arrival.
    She grasps me, preventing me from continuing further. The grip heats my shoulder, and her intent to welcome me has the opposite effect. Instead, I envision myself flying up the stairs leaving her far behind, but that is not the case. I must play nice. I need a place to stay and her home, a step above an average Airbnb, fits the bill nicely.
    The room I am renting is meant for visiting professors or high tech geniuses, in town for short periods of time to fix big problems. Someone like me, with my plans, should not be here in such a charming home.

January Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Conventional Magic
GENRE: YA Magical Realism

I promised Aunt Jodie I wouldn’t hex anyone this Con.

But it was very tempting. Especially when one second a red shirt Trekkie, can be hitting on you in Klingon and the next minute he’s trailing after a pink Power Ranger, leaving you with a towering mass of boxes in your arms and a closing door.

Even though the Con hadn’t officially started, it warmed my heart when vendors arrived in cosplay. It lent a certain energy to set up day. Half of me wished I was outfitted in my working cosplay but wings make it extremely hard to unload all the boxes and set up the pergola all by myself.
However, my heart cooled a little when people forgot the art of common decency; like opening up doors for people whose arms are laden down with heavy objects. Those people were in danger of being hexed.

A slight breeze of AC hit my face. I twitched my nose and the slowly closing door flew open.

“Psh, who needs help,” I said to no one in particular, flashing my vendor badge to the Con security team.

They waved me through without a glance. I wasn’t a weapons vendor and therefore to them posed less of a threat. It’s amazing what a smile can do.

“What’s with the door?”

“Been doing that all day. Probably the wind.”

No, no my dear fellow, not wind. Witch. I’d forgive him for not understanding, just this once.

 “Hey Gwen, hold on!”

My witchy senses tingled in a new alert.

January Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Spinout
GENRE: YA contemporary

           Turn Three rushes at me. I brake, tug the wheel to the left. My racecar—the Mirage 2—slews sideways through the sharp curve. I straighten out with a flick of the wheel, floor the throttle. My Pontiac thunders onto the short straight.
            I am so killing the Oklahoma City Raceway.
            As I set up for the next turn, I touch the wrinkled photo taped to my dash. My father gives the camera a thumbs up. Wish he could be here to see me race. But he’s not happy unless he’s behind the wheel of a fast racecar every weekend. I miss his encouragement.
            Even without Dad here to cheer me on, I need to nail the groove. Sure, these practice laps don’t count. But smoking the other drivers proves I can blow their doors off, even though they have more racing experience than I do at sixteen.
            Fast practice sessions also give me a huge confidence boost for tomorrow’s 100 lap race. As a rookie on the Junior Stock Car Racing Circuit, I need to finish fifth or better in three of my first six races. Otherwise, I’m ineligible for any Junior Circuit race for the rest of the summer.
            It won’t be easy. But I’ve dreamed of this forever. Now that I made Juniors, I plan to stay here.
            As I exit Five, Reid Matthews’ red and white Dodge closes up on me until it fills my mirrors.    

January Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Diplomatic Immunity
GENRE: Adult thriller

Diana Avery straightened out the speaker wires and turned on her wireless Bluetooth headset. By a switch of a button, this connected her to security on the second floor. Small jolts of tingling energy ran up and down her fingers when she fastened the wires to the podium. After a quick glimpse to her watch, she blew out a breath. Before Prime Minister Tattersall gave her speech to the Royal Canadian Legion, it had posed a mixture of excitement and nerves. And this presentation was a big one for all of Canada to hear any moment now.

Voices murmured in English and French behind her as the crowd got settled in. When she finished with the sound check, she pivoted and remained rooted near the doorway.

Almost time for showtime!

An African-American woman entered the room and approached Diana. She dressed in a Donna Karan black and scarlet pantsuit with matching pumps.  "Ms. Avery, may I have a word with you?"

 "Who are you?" Diana asked low and faint.

"Nicole Pembroke. I'm Prime Minister Tattersall's advisor. We spoke on the phone a month ago."
She nodded and raised her chin with her shoulders back.  "I remember, Ms. Pembroke. What can I do for you? We're all set for the speech."

"Prime Minister Tattersall wanted me to give you a message. She'll meet with you soon."


Nicole handed her a sealed envelope. "Tonight. Near the VIP Salon. See you in an hour." She exited the foyer.

January Secret Agent #28

GENRE: YA Fantasy

There was no way the babe could be alive.

Not in the biting cold of the páramo mountains where demons crawled out of burrows and prowled from stunted trees to barbed shrubs. Where in the height of night the breath came out smoky white, and icicles crusted the spikes of cacti. Here, an abandoned babe was nothing more than an easy meal.
So Reyna hurried. Her transplant heart thrummed as she hiked the tundra in the presence of shadows. Spiked cacti tugged her clothes and dead twigs snapped under her weight. A lone breeze sang past the sparse trees, then chilled her right through the openings of her clothes.

It wasn’t so much that the darkness frightened her, but what it meant to be here. What rescuing the babe meant.

Cold perspiration hugged her palms underneath her leather gloves. Her hand found the hilt of her sword on its own, the feel of it becoming a reassurance. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed.

Perhaps the páramo had wards. The sorceress doña Wilgeva could have employed any kind of spell to alert her whenever someone with Reyna’s exact intentions crossed these paths. It was almost stupid of her to come on her own, thinking she had the power to change anything.

A shadow shifted from the corner of her eyes. The tall grass stopped breathing. Or maybe she did.
Reyna leapt away from the sounds of a pursuer, scrambling over stunted stumps and slippery, mossy rocks.

January Secret Agent #27

TITLE: First Course
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

           The day did not begin with any sign that it would conclude as a complete and utter train wreck. It began as many of my days in Chicago as a twenty-four-year-old “trend reporter” for Young Chicago magazine did, with me kicking my boss out of my bed so that he could take a shower, followed by me, before my roommate Scarlett had to start getting ready for her day as a psychology graduate student. While Cole was in the shower, I made a pot of coffee, put his in a travel mug, and left it on the counter so that he could grab it on his way to work. Only one person at the magazine – my close friend Blair the “cocktail reporter” – knew of our involvement, so we were very careful never to show up to the office at the same time. Our relationship had been going on for close to a year, and it was fairly impressive that no one on the small staff seemed to have a clue as to what was going on. He was our editor, and the consequences of others knowing were likely to be uncomfortable and potentially quite problematic for many in our workplace environment. Blair, on the other hand, thought it was terrifically entertaining.
            “You know that he’s been on the phone pacing in his office for 20 minutes,” Blair said to me as soon as I walked into my cubicle in our River North office on that mid-June morning.

January Secret Agent #26

TITLE: The Pharaoh's Daughter
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

Gaythelos had two different colored eyes—one blue, one green—and he used them to domineer the Middle Sea.

His right eye, the green one, watched the waves and interpreted the nautical map hidden in the stars. His blue eye allowed him to see what normally wasn’tvisible: the spear-barring sea sorceress, who had blackened teeth and even darker eyes; the twelve-headed serpent, who fed on sailors’ flesh; the scale-covered míol mór, a whale who sang only when it watched people drown.

From a young age, Gaythelos realized his green gaze saw the human world, while his blue exposed the Otherworld. A realmfilled with gods and monsters. Gaythelos stood in both, as did the sea. Whether the waves encouraged ship-splintering storms or the demons who enjoyed the destruction, Gaythelos saw the ocean for what it was and the ocean saw him back, which was why it left him alone. Most monsters wanted unsuspecting victims, not soldiers ready to fight, and Gaythelos made sure to train all of his followers in combat, navigation, and barter.Some might have called them an army. Gaythelos preferred to ignore titles, including his own: Attica’s prince, son of Cecrops, child of Zeus. Much good that did him.

How many times had he been exiled now? Four? Five?

The first time it had happened, he was eight. Barely old enough to realize what, exactly, being a bastard prince meant to an already contentious throne. The second time, he was more prepared. The third, he realized preparation was futile.

January Secret Agent #25

GENRE: Adult Mystery

Jagged urgent streaks in my beloved shade of midnight blue materialize into dainty petals at the practiced stroke of my hand. Grim and perfect, the stone structure exposes centuries-old secrets.
Most people have family traditions such as apple picking, camping, or oyster roasts. Not me. My tradition roots from my mom’s peculiar hobby of gravestone rubbing at sunset. What started for her as a high school dare evolved into a historic collection for our rural county. She said she preserves their existence, and maybe a librarian or genealogist may want a copy.

To this day, we’ve never received a request.

“Norah, you done? I don’t wanna be late, again.” Lucy, my best friend, kneels at one of many crumbling gravestones two plots over.

She doesn’t mind the dark mud swallowing her jeans. If she sunk any deeper, I’d have to extract her with the dead tree limb dangling over the Todd family’s obelisk. The lingering after-effects of an afternoon thunderstorm almost spoiled our plan. Instead, we gathered our courage to sludge through the muck of the oldest cemetery in Copperville. We’re isolated from town, on a dirt road behind a big box store.

“Don’t you want to add an angel’s ass to your morbid collection?”

Her seedy pride twinkles through her green-framed glasses. She presents a giant sheet of paper and points to the naked angel cherub in purple crayon. Even on this thirteenth day of February, my mom’s murder anniversary, Lucy knows how to lighten a somber mood.

January Secret Agent #24

GENRE: YA Literary Fiction

~JUNE 2001~

Rayne set her phone to vibrate. Her father would be pissed if it rang in the funeral home, but she needed it in case anyone called after the Graduation ceremony she was missing.

Dad doesn't understand, but Mom would, and she's the one who matters here.

It was annoying enough she had to be there instead, when the next day was the real deal. Her father's jaw tightened when she dared to suggest she go to Graduation alone. His voice cracked with exasperation more than ever, so she hadn't argued with him. It might be easier to get permission to go out tomorrow after the obligatory visitors left the house. So, she would play Dutiful Daughter, but be reachable if anyone wanted to talk to her--just her--about anything else.

Katie sat across the room, dangling feet making her seem more petite than usual for thirteen. She glanced at their mother--a painted shell, embalmed and enameled with cosmetics she'd rarely worn--before looking down to avoid the inquiring eyes surrounding her. Rayne's conscience twinged, directing her to go to her sister. But, she didn't know what she'd do once she got there.

Pat Katie on the head like a puppy? Or kick one of those dainty feet and tell her to get up so I can sit in the comfy chair?

Rayne wrestled a grin. Now the thought would manifest into action whether she wanted or not. She was better off staying away from the poor girl.

January Secret Agent #23

TITLE: The Last Time You Died
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

It’s my first time back at school since Ben died and I don’t know what to expect. Will my friends understand and support me or will they turn their backs and trash me? Can I hold it together?

I step into the classroom and familiar sights and sounds crowd my senses—kids laughing and talking, our advisor, Mr. Davis, shuffling papers at his desk. A wave of panic creeps up my chest, lodges in my throat. I draw a deep breath to calm down and it gets worse—musty books, dry-erase markers, cheap floor wax—normal school smells, now linked forever to painful memories. It sucks, but I had to come or everyone would have said: Gemma’s lost it and won’t leave her house.

Nothing’s changed since last spring. The same movie posters hang on the slate-grey walls. The same scratched metal desks arranged in a semi-circle—Greek theater-style. The same anti-drug flyers and list of classroom rules posted on the bulletin board. Arrive on time. Respect yourself and others. Users are losers.

Kids zone out on their phones. Two boys chase each other around the desks, laughing and trading insults, while in the front row, two girls braid each other’s hair.

It looks the same, but it feels different. I turn my eyes away from the empty seat against the blackboard where Ben used to sit, cracking jokes, touching my hand when nobody was looking.

“Gemma, over here.”

Micaela and Caleb wave to me from their seats. I smile and wave back.

January Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Where Blood Runs Black
GENRE: YA Historical

Loud, drunken laughter echoed out from the saloon and onto the street. I smiled, knowing the man would already be drunk this late in the afternoon. That would certainly make my job easier.
This was the end of the line for Wolfe. I’d been tracking him for weeks and weeks. Now I had him cornered.

I smirked as I eyed one of his wanted posters hanging a few feet away. They’d be taking those down shortly. Just as soon as Wolfe was jailed. Not only would he be locked up, but I’d be a little richer, too.

Wolfe was the only remarkable thing in this town. There was nothing more than the same dusty streets and ramshackle, wooden buildings I’d gotten used to seeing. Most towns looked the same, no matter what territory I happened to be in.

I pushed back the brim of my hat and sauntered toward the saloon’s doors. My eyes stayed alert, though I made sure to keep my pace slow and relaxed. I wanted to join the scene as a bystander.
My skirt did a good job hiding both the pistol and knife strapped to my legs. My belt was tightly cinched to accentuate my waist and my shirt was close-fitting as well. Any outlaw I chased was like all the rest – easily distracted by a woman’s body. If Wolfe was distracted, then he’d be a quick catch. After all, no outlaw ever expected a woman to be the one to bring them to justice.

January Secret Agent #21

GENRE: YA Fantasy

If it wasn’t my job to protect the princess, I would have strangled her by now. The journey to Varta was only a day or two, but it felt much longer. We had just spent the last six months training with Princess Amyrion, and none of it prepared us for this ride. 

Four Vatari guards and one stuffy princess crammed into a carriage felt like some sort of cruel punishment. The carriage was so loud and slow, it practically yelled our location. This close to the Meridian border was risky enough. The king hadn't even bothered to send a troop of soldiers with us. Not like we needed it. I could only imagine how useless they would feel around Vatari. 

I stared at Princess Amyrion’s hands as she popped her knuckles for the seventeenth time since I started counting. When she ran out of bones to pop, she fidgeted with the headpiece wrapped around her hairline. Her fingernails reached underneath the headpiece and scratched her scalp. My hands slipped underneath my thighs and balled into fists.

When the princess was satisfied, she sat back and stared at the ceiling of the cab. For a moment, there was sweet respite from her ticks. I didn’t hold my breath. A minute later, she clicked her tongue as she held a small mirror up to her face. She examined the red makeup that ran in a thick line across her crimson eyes. Surely, she was trying to personally torture me.

I thought of ways I could antagonize her when a sharp scraping sound grabbed my attention.

January Secret Agent #20

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Every birthday is important, but for witches, it’s the seventeenth that counts.

I lock my arms around my knees as I look out at the gently rocking ocean, shimmering under the moonlight like a dragon scale. A steady breeze makes my long, thick hair tickle the sides of my face. This rocky New England coastline is as familiar to me as the floors in my house. I’ve never gone without callouses on the soles of my feet, salt on my skin. But only in the past few months have I seen so much of the ocean at night.

According to my phone, it’s two minutes to midnight. Two minutes to my seventeenth. And for the first time since we’ve started to meet, Lara is late.

“You came at the very start of the day,” Mom told me once. “A mere minute after midnight.” She usually refuses to tell me anything about what life was like when I was little, when my father was alive and around, but I’d managed to wring out that detail one night as we binged on Real Housewives. She was stirring a pot of eversleep potion – two strokes clockwise, four counterclockwise, repeat – and as usual, I could watch, but not touch. Thanks to her, the rituals of magic have always been frustratingly inexplicable. “You didn’t cry. You looked calm, like you were exactly where you were meant to be. Like you’d always been with us.”

I glance over my shoulder.

January Secret Agent #19

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

“It’s okay sweetie, I know you’re nervous.” She squeezed my hand before placing hers back on the steering wheel.

Nervous didn’t begin to cover it. Our windows were tinted as dark as legally allowed to hide me from view of humans. I normally stayed holed up in our small house in Norway and wore a bunch of layers if we had to drive somewhere. I couldn’t wait to learn how to mask my appearance for the humans. I couldn’t wait to learn magic period.

Not having my magic yet, and the fact that I’d never been away from home, or away from my mom, was dampening my excitement. Oh, and the fact that I had zero friends, but I was hoping that was all about to change. In just a few minutes I could breathe the sweet scent of freedom instead of the stuffy air of my house, and I’d be with others like me.

“Okay,” my mom said, interrupting my thoughts, “I’m going to need some help. I see a long building, with rust and mold covering it, and a rusted fence with barbed wire enclosing it, and a Private Property sign. But this is the location, right?”

I gaped at her, a small smile forming, and turned back to the scene before us. “Yes. There is a long building, an old strip mall I think. But none of that other stuff. There are about twenty warlocks standing around and a line of cars dropping warlocks and luggage off.”

January Secret Agent #18

GENRE: Adult Domestic Suspense

Ask me what someone said during that fight we had years ago or what someone did at that birthday party when we were all kids, and I can tell you with off-putting accuracy. Unfortunately, I have a phenomenal memory. I should’ve gotten a job at a restaurant instead of this soul-sucking store. I could’ve dazzled everyone by taking even the most complicated of orders without writing down a thing.
             It’s nine in the morning, and we aren’t open yet. In the break room, I’m eating toast and listening to my coworkers carry on about which of us used to be straight-A students and which of us were summer school regulars.
            “Honey, my report card saw more C’s, D’s, and F’s than a bisexual hooker. You bet your sweet ass I was in summer school every year,” Clara says.
            “Um, wouldn’t a bisexual hooker see plenty of A’s and B’s, too, though?” Simon asks, his feet up on the table. He catches the loaf of bread that Clara lobs at him and rests it on his lap. “What about you, Hen? Did you go to summer school?”
            Henry, who’s never once called in sick and who bends to the customers like an overcooked noodle, says, “Summer school? No.”
            “Cassie?” Simon pries.
            Me, I just wasn’t a summer school type of gal. I was A’s and B’s all across the board. I was rarely tardy or absent.  Never drank, never did drugs.

January Secret Agent #17

GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

All I hear is David Byrne’s musical warning thrumming through the sound system, him moaning like a demented traffic cop for us to Watch Out—lest we get what we’re after. The whole club screams along.

I follow Audrey across the dance floor, her padded deltoids a shelf that stretches from one shoulder to the other. Drum beats cut through the cigarette-thickened air, mixing with perspiration and swerving blue spotlights as darkly-clad people bounce around the floor. Audrey, Trina, and I orbit each other like satellites in mini-skirts, jockeying for more space on the gritty floor as the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” ratchets to full throttle.

Audrey’s oversized shirt jogs along with the music, fabric draping past her knees and obliterating the kick-ass figure she has under there. I swivel a huge, asymmetrical red leather belt back down toward my waist to keep it from jutting into my rib cage and cutting off my breath. Passing out on the dance floor would not be good.

As we get near the back wall, a pattern of miniature glass tiles emerges from the obscurity, brightened by a spotlight sweep. Remnants of my last rye and ginger prickle the recesses of my brain as a huge mosaic image falls into focus beyond the bobbling bodies on the dance floor. I stop cold and grab Audrey by the arm.

“Holy God.” I blink. The light system does its next once-over. Glass flakes sparkle like spring water.

January Secret Agent #16

TITLE: Stronger than Poison
GENRE: YA Romantic Suspense

Nerves twisted my stomach into an origami crane. My eyes followed the gallery owner’s nimble hands flipping through my most precious possessions like they were the morning newspaper.
            “Hmm.” He paused. “How would you describe this one?”
            My half-chewed-off fingernail dropped from my lips. I peered over his shoulder. Red and black paint splashed across the canvass. I’d debated on whether to include that one. It was a result of a recurring nightmare. I opened my mouth to answer when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I always at least kept it on vibrate for emergencies.
            “Sorry,” I said and glanced at the display, Will, my brother. I hit decline. He’d pestered me for the last week. I cleared my throat and motioned to the picture. “I painted it after an intense nightmare.”
            He nodded and pointed to the silver blur racing off the canvas. “Someone was shot?”
            I swallowed the lump in my throat. “My dad. He was killed in action in Afghanistan.”
            “Your emotion is vivid here, not like the first few. They’re pretty but without feeling. This is more visceral, piercing, if you will. Reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream.”
            I flinched. That painting was the hell I tried to escape from.
The posh gallery even smelled artsy, a combination of the perfume of fresh flowers mixed with paint fumes. I sucked in a breath. These white walls launched more careers than anywhere else in Chicago.

January Secret Agent #15

TITLE: Cut To The Bone
GENRE: YA Fantasy

The soft tendrils of death wafted through the window of Azima's bedroom, but she didn't need to see the black serpentine arms spiraling through the dense evening air to know she was dreaming.
           A nightmare, most likely.
            She had such visions ever since her first bleeding, as had all Rousseau women when their power was on blossoming. A blessing and a curse, her mother used to say when she questioned why the dreams were stronger, more lucid at the same time every month.  Of course, that was before Alara Rousseau was run through with the poisonous barb from the tail of a biju demon on Azima's sixteenth birthday.
            At that time, she had two years to go before she could properly hold the holy weapons of the Rousseau family without needing to worry herself with the burns from the wards upon the palms of her hands.  Even though she was now past her eighteenth birthday, the dream made her remember, and she rubbed her hands along her thighs as if to fend off the tingling of the healing wounds.
            She was in the same dark dress she wore to her mother's funeral pyre- the only one she possessed. She remembered her mother’s Imerman chastising her for how revealing and inappropriate it was, and she, in turn, reminded him it was his place only to train her, not to comment on her choice of attire.
            Though he sired her, he was not her father. Rousseau women did not marry.

January Secret Agent #14

TITLE: The Mercurial Way
GENRE: YA Dystopian

I leave my room at the stroke of Somber bell. Wearing just my nightdress, the cold stone hall brings a shiver as I hurry past my Sisters’ doors. But the Petrat are early, and I duck into an alcove, holding my breath with eyes shut tight and heart pounding. As the guards' steps fade I race for the spiraling stairway. By the time I reach the closet nestled in the base of Haven tower my lungs are rough with terror.

The closet door latches with a gentle click. With trembling fingers I pry two loose stones free of their placement in the back wall, my efforts noisy to my ears. I pause, listening for anything unusual, but no alarms sound. I squirm my way through the narrow opening and into the space beyond.

The darkness is perfect. I dare not use my solar flame behind such ancient mortar, and so from memory repair the stonework before feeling my way along a twisting staircase that ends in Abri’s forgotten cellar. The space is crammed with relics of Goddesses past, beautiful girls whose secrets will keep forever. I light my flame and shadows spring to life, but I do not fear. The relics are drenched in spider webbing—proof enough they’ve remained undisturbed since my last visit. I take care not to touch these forgotten Sisters as I move among them. Reaching Abri’s foundation, I slip through a wide crack.

My flame brightens. The curious tunnel I discovered as a child stretches before me.

January Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Wish I Was Here
GENRE: YA Mystery

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

I used the key he’d given me two years ago to let myself in.

“Is that you, Ana?”

Who else would it be? “Yes.”

“Did you lock the—?”

“I’m locking it now.”


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

On top of a cabinet stood the cage for Isaac’s rabbit, Einstein. I was surprised to see it empty, though the pet’s musty odor lingered. A suitcase filled with Isaac’s thick notebooks sat on a wooden table in the middle of the room. His tools, gadgets, gears, and unfamiliar metal parts from clocks, maybe, or engines, or who knows what, were shoved off to the side instead of taking their usual place at center stage.

A T-shirt poked out between a second suitcase’s zippered teeth.

January Secret Agent #12

TITLE: A Heart Life
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

Present Day

Outsiders call Balmoral State Penitentiary the rich man’s version of San Quentin. A prison for pussies, the guards say, as they shove us into our individual cells. No sharing cells in this place. Guess they’re afraid we might find a way to smuggle in a shank on visiting day and kill our roomie.
Wikipedia describes Balmoral State Penitentiary, otherwise referred to as BSP, as a state penitentiary in California nicknamed “the vacation spot for white-collar criminals.” Labeling BSP as a vacation spot is the most egregious offense of all. I don’t have anything to compare it to, since this is the first time I’ve ever been in prison, in jail, in any place they send people who commit a crime. Immediately after sentencing, my attorney told me Balmoral would be an easy place for me to fit in.
My first feeling, after he said that, was indignant. I don’t want to ever “fit in” in prison. I know what he means, though. So far, I haven’t been beat up by any gang members. That’s a good thing. Here at BSP, they separate the not-so-bad from the bad from the worst. I’m categorized as not-so-bad. Interesting, that.

First of all, I don’t belong here. But isn’t that what every prisoner says?

I didn’t do it.

There’s been a mistake.

You’re confusing me with someone who looks just like me.

Now, let me reiterate. I don’t belong here. I didn’t say I didn’t commit a crime.

January Secret Agent #11

GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

Tonight is a Magus Moon, unnaturally large like a balloon about to burst. Crimson bleeds from its curves into the sky: a trick of the light, people claim.

Such a menacing sight shouldn’t loosen the jumble of knots in my gut, but it does. Magus Moons have existed longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve grown used to them. We all have. Parents lock their doors, keep strict curfews, and never allow their children into the woods. For as long as Statfield remembers, a kid between the age of three and fourteen disappears every five years. Like clockwork, and all during a Magus Moon. The last child vanished seven years ago, and the reins have loosened. Teens relish the red hue it casts. We’re too old to be taken by the boogeyman, and we have less to fear now that we don’t have to worry about losing a sibling.

This truly is the perfect night for a party. The backyard pulsates with energy. The crisp night air mixes with the food sizzling on the grill. Music blares around us, pierced only by delighted shrieks. I’m not friends with the guy hosting, but damn he’s got the perfect spot: a lake house at the edge of the woods and miles away from neighbors.

Beside me, my best friend, Jenny, runs a hand through her mass of dark curls. “You ready, Zo?”
My head bobs. “Yup. Besides, we have to be here. We couldn’t be the only cheerleaders to not show up.”

January Secret Agent #10

GENRE: YA Science-Fiction

Mercia was no longer the city her father died to defend.

Eliza choked back the sorrow scratching at her throat as a deluge of rain smothered the car. Every time the sliver of hope reared its head she told herself nothing but memories remained. Still, as the windscreen wipers squeaked and her minder, Ian, bent double over the steering wheel to navigate their approach to Mercia’s gates, Eliza’s pulse quickened.

There had to be something to salvage.

Eliza took in the umbrellas dancing along the pavement, blurry behind fog on the windows. Goodbye, Blackwater, and the rules and regulations of the wayward house. Toodle-oo to the freedom of news, movement, and generally not living under the laws of a glorified idiot.

Good riddance to the place that wasn’t, and never could be, home.

Thunder rolled as Ian muttered about schedules, and timing, and ‘bloody weather’. England definitely didn’t do storms by halves, but Eliza blocked it all out, immune. If you weren’t moaning about the weather, were you even British?

 “Remember what I told you.” Ian waited to make sure she was listening. “No punching people and taking names.”

Eliza rolled her eyes. It had been one girl, and one punch, and she already knew the bitch’s name. Granted, Eliza ended up breaking the girl’s nose, but it had served her right. Eliza drew in a long breath—counsellors would be proud of her—and exhaled. One wrong move and Ian would send her straight back.

January Secret Agent #9

TITLE: Flight Club
GENRE: Adult women's fiction

My godmother Pam used to say a woman’s mind is like an airplane—quick, powerful, and built to soar. Pam worked in-flight in the eighties and nineties, when flight attendants were called stewardesses, and the general public could hang out at airport gates without boarding passes. As a wide-eyed kid back home on the bayou, Pam’s stories were the only ones I’d come in off the water for. She was so worldly and wise. I wanted to grow up to be just like her.

Ironically, my mind feels more like a swamp boat stuck in the mud than a high-flying airplane, due to the surly-eyed passenger towering over me in the aircraft aisle.

If this guy glares any harder, he’ll burst a blood vessel and ruin his sleek navy suit.

I steady my breath, while the scarf at my neck tightens into a vise-like grip. Calm and focused, I can do this.

“Please take a seat, sir,” I say.

The man’s brow furrows deeper. “Tell your captain to open that door and get me back up to the gate. I need to find my phone. It’s life or death. ”

Smartphones pop up, one by one, from the leather seats at either side of the aisle. Behind them, their owners remain poised and ready. Great. I don’t suppose they’d wait for me to freshen up my lip gloss before recording. I’d really like to look nice when my epic fail goes viral.

January Secret Agent #8

TITLE: At 7th and Broadway
GENRE: YA YA Contemporary

There was a drugstore down the street from Aunt Sylvie’s house, and once my leg healed, I walked there daily to stare at tabloid headlines. Some actress from the ‘50s had a secret son! Bekah Ashton is working for the CIA! Get all the details about Leslie Abrams’ orgies here! The tabloids lied. I stared at those ridiculous headlines and reminded myself that the tabloids lied.

The first time had been an accident. I went to buy bleach for my hair, and I happened to glance at the rack next to the register. My face stared back at me. “Brianna Vincent, pregnant with twins?”

Trash. Absolute trash. But somewhere out there, maybe, people were believing it.

It’s a miracle I didn’t run, stealing the box of bleach in the process. But no, I paid. I walked out, and I went home and chopped off every inch of my hair. Mia found me in the bathroom, standing in a circle of the clippings and reading the instructions on the back of the bleach. She gave me that look, her classic look these days. The “you’re such a screw-up, I can’t really stand to look at you, but you’re my sister, so I have to” look. Then she took the box from my hands, told me to sit down on the toilet, and got to work. I sat still, frozen, replaying the tabloid picture in my head. Somewhere, in an alternate reality, Brianna Vincent may have been pregnant with twins, but I wasn’t Brianna Vincent.

January Secret Agent #7

GENRE: YA Fantasy

I finish coughing up a lung, what’s left of it anyway, and wheeze in the grimy air of the pit we call home, number fifty-nine, Fetter Lane—the wrong side of town.

Phlegm marks the sleeve of my nightshirt, but it don’t matter, I rub it in good to match the crusted dirt already there. I lean over the edge of the bed for my Leaden. Unscrewing the tiny lid of the brown bottle, I lift my head a fraction and drink back a sip of… air. All gone. I drop back into my pillow. I’ll survive till Pa gets more from the Markt. I hope. Disease spreads like an infected wound here, in the stinky armpit of Loredom, not helped by the night air breathing its germs in through the broken window.

I squint through the gloom; Pa’s still asleep, his mound pressed against the grubby wall, lit by the glow of the street lamp spilling in through the scraps of curtains. Even in the dark it’s never too dark to see the insects crawling over the beds. The building would sooner collapse on his head before he woke up, unless that is, Ma Smith’s pea were to strike the window from her shooter down on the street. Only thing what lifts his head off the pillow. Don’t ask me, makes no sense, ’cept for the call of glimmer, not that he makes much. Better than nothing, s'pose.

Wedged beside me lies my ten-year-old sister, Clara; her clay-brown face so peaceful, so still—too still.

January Secret Agent #6

TITLE: The Stone Witch's Granddaughter
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Mom’s knuckles whitened around the steering wheel as the bitter taste of smoke filled the car. Even with the windows rolled up, the cloying smell seeped inside, heralding an end at last to the narrow gravel drive, and promising some truth to the story that had dragged us out here.

“I swore I’d never drive up this damn hill again.” Strands of dark hair hung limply around Mom’s face, having slipped free of an exhausted bun. Her jaw was rigid, her mouth a thin line. “I should have known she wouldn’t let us go that easily.”

The tires slid on loose stones as Mom gunned the car up the final incline. Our poor muffler growled several decibels louder than it had at the bottom of the hill, and didn’t quiet when we levelled out in a forbidding tunnel of Garry oaks and Douglas maples. The wind plucked dying autumn leaves from gnarled branches and flung them at the windshield like it was trying to fend us off.

“I want you to stay in the car,” Mom said.

“I can help--”

“No.” The word was unyielding, but when she looked at me, fear softened her eyes. They were earthy green, just like Nan’s, but I wasn’t dumb enough to point that out. “I don’t know what she’ll be like, Mae. If that woman was telling the truth…” Mom’s fingers wrung the steering wheel like she probably wanted to wring that woman’s neck. “Your grandmother might be…volatile.”

January Secret Agent #5

GENRE: YA Fantasy

April 13, 1803

Micah succumbed to the Ignition today. The suns were approx. 5% overlapped at ten past 6 AM, the time of transformation.

Two slayers dead. One injured. Our parents, and me, respectively.

During the attempt to slay him, Micah sustained wounds to the wings, right eye, and left flank. While not fatal, they slowed his movements long enough to bind his wings and muzzle with chains. Securing moondaggers hilt-deep between every third vertebrae rendered him immobile. The daggers remained in place to prevent his recovery until I transported him to the cavern and bolted his chains to the rock.

Micah is a quiet, well behaved twelve-year-old boy. As expected, there is no correlation between human and dragon demeanor. Granted, there are no known records of slayers observing dragons in captivity. This journal will be the first.

Might as well experiment on ways to cure my brother. Diu knows I have nothing else left to live for.

~Abel Estellio

Chapter One

I remove my glove and run two fingertips along the windmill’s charred frame. No heat. Little residue. Grooves run through the muddy ash beneath my leather boots, proof that yesterday’s rainstorm is the only reason half the town of Bourlin survived a dragon attack without a slayer.

Without me.

I run my hand through my blond hair and sigh up at Noctu’s constellation. The autumn chill turns my breath to fog, clouding the arc of stars that outline the owl’s outstretched left wing. The Night Watcher isn’t favoring my hunt as of late.

January Secret Agent #4

GENRE: Adult Historical

There is a moment of confusion upon waking when you do not know where or who you are. In such moments, far-off thoughts rise to consciousness like a river spiting up a Senet game piece from a set once loved but long lost and forgotten.
           The thought I have now is of Herodotus. He wrote that the ancient Egyptians loved their cats so much that if their homes were burning, the men would sacrifice themselves to save them. People say that Herodotus was the world’s first historian. I say he was a fool. Women do the sacrificing, not men.
            Yet, when I study my sister with her eyes outlined in a layer of kohl as thick as her black hair, oiled now and set loose down the length of her back, I think Hikmat aims to test the theory.   Would men rush into a burning fire to save her?
            If she carried an ankh, I might have mistaken her for Bast, the cat goddess. For the tiniest of instances in those confusing moments, I do.
            But then the room comes into focus behind her. The repulsive walls of poured cement, painted the shade of watery urine are chipped in spots and stained in others. The always-closed, ever-small window to the outside world is still there, still positioned much too far from my reach lest I somehow span the distance from my bed to it, unaided, and then proceed to fall out, a monstrous three cubits to the muddy ground below.

January Secret Agent #3

GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

Today, the horizon was a promise, not a prison.

Isa stood at the bow of her uncle’s ship, her face turned into the wind and spray. For two days the merchant vessel had skimmed through the waves, past mountains and islands carved off from the mainland when gods and giants still waged their wars.

The ship had long left her mother’s lands—of farms and forests and deep, wild mountains—and still there was more to discover. What else was out there? Beyond Helgeland, beyond Nordland... Isa’s wool cloak twisted in her fist. Better not think about it—she'd never have the chance to find out. A jarl’s place was within her borders, save for brief, diplomatic trips like this one.

It took Isa months to convince her mother to send her to the festival in Oslo this year, but being one failure shy of exile made for a strong argument. The Oslo king hosted the largest Winter Nights Festival in the twelve kingdoms, and it was Isa’s last chance to prove herself worthy of being her mother’s heir.

With the twilight of an early evening fading, the crew should have been on the lookout for an inlet to put into for the night, but they sailed on without slowing. Lanterns at the fore and aft of the karve turned the ship into a glowing island passing through the dark. The one above Isa cut stark shadows into the dragon figurehead that marked the ship as part of Uncle Eyvind's fleet.

January Secret Agent #2

GENRE: YA sci-fi thriller

How many police officers does it take to arrest a seventeen-year-old kid?

           The answer is five.

           Five officers and three cars.

           Three and a half, actually, but one of them took a turn too sharp and flipped out of the pursuit. Not my fault, even though they claim it is. It’s not like I asked to be chased. I was just minding my own business, but the cops always make a big deal out of things.

           Let me explain. It’s a quiet Friday in the middle of June, right. The evening sun shines its glory on Norvani, a rarity even during summer. Everything is fine and dandy. I’m cruising in my car, which I might have borrowed from my father, which I also might be driving without a license, when the cops come up behind me, sirens blasting. And I thought that running away from home would be an easy feat.

           The officer pulls me over and the first thing he does is grab my fake ID. He looks at it, then at me, then back to my ID.

            “Charles Theodore Walker?”


            “Brown eyes?” In my peripheral vision, the cop gestures for me to make eye contact.

            “Absolutely,” I say and glance at him briefly, hoping he won’t notice my clear blue eyes.

            His thin lips form into a stern line. “What is your name, son? Your real name.”

            “Charlie Walker,” I sigh and tighten my fingers around the steering wheel so hard the leather squeaks. “And no, I’m not 22-years-old. I’m 17.”

January Secret Agent #1

TITLE: A Golden Storm
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Eight hours ago, when Nicco slammed my locker shut and told me we had plans tonight, I said what I always say―I’m in―because the best way to make sure Nicco doesn’t do something too crazy is to be with him. Usually it works. Every now and then though, he gets an idea in his head and nothing will break him free from it until he does what he wants.

This evening’s party is starting to look like one of those times.

Nicco leans out over the second-story balcony as far as he can. Below us other kids stand around a pool, beers in hand and eyes on us. Well, maybe not us. On Nicco.

“I’ll make it to the water,” he says, eyeing the drop. “It’s not a big jump.”

“Come on,” I say, a few feet behind him. The two girls he’d been flirting with earlier whisper to each other, before one lifts her phone, making sure Nicco is framed perfectly by her camera.

“Have another drink and leave it,” I say, bargaining. That’s always the first step when Nicco gets like this. Bargain first, argue second, get physical third.

“It’ll be easy.” His eyes widen as he stares down at the pool and the challenge I know he’s contemplating. He’s probably imagining it―the drop down and all the eyes that would be on him as he fell.

“And if you get hurt?” I say, because that’s all I’m really worried about anyway.

“Well, at least there’s a healer here,” Nicco answers, pointing.


Monday, January 14, 2019

January Secret Agent Contest: Early Info

Please note: This is NOT the call for submissions! The contest will open next Monday, January 21.

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:

*women's fiction
*historical fiction
*YA (all genres)