Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Fricassee

Wow. This one hit me off guard. Submissions for our November Secret Agent contest open ON MONDAY.

Yipes. Somehow I thought it was later in the month. So here's your completely last-minute, heads up submission guidelines for Monday the 2nd:

Submissions for our next Secret Agent contest will open at 12:00 NOON EDT on Monday, November 2.

* Submissions WILL NOT OPEN until NOON, EDT. Early submissions WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED.
* 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.
* Manuscripts THAT HAVE BEEN IN A SECRET AGENT CONTEST DURING THE PAST SIX MONTHS (May-October) will not be accepted.
* You may submit A DIFFERENT MANUSCRIPT if you've participated in any of the 2009 Secret Agent contests.
* Only ONE ENTRY per person per contest. If you send more than one, your subsequent entry(ies) will be deleted.
* If you are PAST WINNER, please DO NOT ENTER THIS CONTEST. (Unless it's a different manuscript.)
* Submissions are for THE FIRST 250 WORDS of your manuscript. Please do not stop in the middle of a

Your submission for this contest should be formatted as follows:


(Followed by the excerpt here.)

* No "chapter one," chapter titles, etc.
* You will receive a confirmation email with your post number. I don't always get through quickly. Don't resend.
* Submissions go to facelesswords(at) They DO NOT GO to my authoressmail address. Those of you who are subscribed to this blog via email will note the latter address as the "from." If you use this address for the contest, I WILL NOT SEE YOUR SUBMISSION.

This month's contest will include the following genres:

* Women's fiction (including romance)
* Mysteries and thrillers/suspense
* Fantasy
* Young Adult

Questions? Leave them in the comment box. Readers who know the answers should feel free to answer if you beat me to it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

#33 1000-Word

TITLE: Resilience
GENRE: Suspense

Denise Tyler slapped closed the blue file cover after reading the third paragraph. One phrase in the note stunned her. It tore away the guise cloaking evil and changed her mind about Jeremy Guerdon.

She rubbed her throat and let her hand slide to her chest. The rhythm of her heart increased. Chills bathed her skin. She inhaled and held it to stave tightness in her chest. Stress inflamed the Sarcoidosis in her lungs. Pain would soon intensify with every breath. Weaken her. She exhaled. No relief.

She studied her image in the dresser mirror. The same figure she had before putting on the designs of Rory Beca and Catherine Malandrino faced her. The beauty from Tennessee realized what a misfit she was in her present situation, squashed by a hedonist. My life’s important too, she thought, shoving strands of damp hair off her bare shoulder.

The crisp paper rattled when Denise pulled the handwritten note from the file for another look. She wanted to be sure of its meaning. All doubt fled upon reading the next two paragraphs. That did it. Jeremy’s words proved intent. It cinched her will to leave him even though leaving sealed her fate. The writing contained one secret she refused to let control her. She refused to stick around and make it easy for him to kill her.

She accepted the fluke find as a warning. Something caused the folder to lodge behind the bottom dresser drawer. If she had not had a problem trying to get the drawer closed she might never have discovered the danger she now found herself in.

The opportunity to leave diminished if Jeremy returned home before she could get out of there. His enclosure of control had stifled Denise too long. She refused to vow “love, honor, and obey” after this. Her discovery of his secret life snapped any chance of that.

She lifted her hand and stared at the ring on her finger. The diamond winked at her. Denise slid the ring off her finger and dropped it in the palm of her left hand. Until now the ring had meant more to her than any single thing she ever owned except her life. Jeremy’s notes changed that the moment she read them.

Denise tossed the ring over her shoulder. The platinum dinged a couple times on the dresser top. She reached to turn off the accent light above the mirror and decided against it. A sparkle flashed off the three-carat diamond as if the princess cut stone knew what she was going through and imparted its approval.

Some things had been nice. The three-story house had an Olympic-size pool. A bank account provided unending resources. He bought a new Mercedes convertible for her to drive. And two closets filled with in-fashion clothes and more shoes than she ever thought she would have to choose from.

No. Jeremy’s goal was clear enough. What’s the difference? Fear nagged her even when he wasn’t there. Fear was one thing. To live another minute in the home of a killer was terror she could do without. Especially since she knew he had named her as a target.

She hurried into the walk-in closet. Release felt as good as the faded jeans she decided on and slipped into. The baggy ones he despised made her feel more at ease. She pulled on a Dodger’s jersey, leaving it unbuttoned until she finished snatching clothes off hangers and out of drawers and getting other necessities for her exodus.

She crammed everything she intended to take with her into two leather bags. She jammed her feet into a pair of white New Balance, hooked her left arm under one strap along with the strap on her purse, threaded her right arm under the strap on the second bag and heaved the straps on her shoulders. She pranced out of the room and up the hall, buttoning the jersey as she turned and waggled down the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs Denise dug into her purse for her car keys, clutched them in her left hand, adjusted the air conditioning control to “Off” and reached for the front door knob.
Light flitted across the front of the house, flashing through the first floor windows. A small car wheeled into the driveway.

Denise retreated to the stairs, squeezing the handrail with every measured step upward. The steps emitted creaks she hadn’t noticed when she descended them.

She wished she could see more of the car than the front. Chevrolet? Toyota? She wasn’t sure. What did she know about makes and models of cars? In her opinion cars were nice, okay, ugly, and the foremost--affordable. The one in the driveway didn’t fit the affordable category.
She lingered a third of the way up on the stairs, afraid to=2 0move, thankful she had turned out all lights inside the house.

The car’s headlights stayed pointed at the house. Denise checked her breathing and listened. The sound of a door closing and clack-clack rhythm on the cobblestone walkway sent her clambering upstairs.

She crouched where the rail stopped and the wall started and peeked around the corner through the spindles. She clutched her bags to her torso in an attempt to control the tremors.

The door bell chimed on the wall above her. She slapped a hand over her mouth to squelch a shriek already on its way out because of the sudden noise. She whirled away from the corner and slumped against the wall. Her legs felt boneless as she slid to the floor.

Oh, God. Was the front door locked? She couldn’t remember.

She leaned far enough to see the front door and received her answer. It wasn’t the one she had hoped for. The door opened. The barrel of a pistol jutted through the space between the door and jamb.

#31 1000-Word

TITLE: Neanderthals, Wolves, and Us: The First Man Standing Series
GENRE: Historical/Magical Realism

A student asked Professor Arny Singer if he could name one incident in his life, which led to his Nobel Prize, and what’s life been like since. The second part wasn’t so easy. Arny preferred to dramatize the interwoven lives of wolves, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens. He failed to mention he lived it, a point Nobel would not find amusing. As for the first part:

Arny took too many chances with wild life.

His mom and dad argued so loud about him, a grizzly bear might stop by to complain. Arny froze like a statue in the blind black outside their tent, trying to understand. Were it not his thirteenth birthday, he guessed, there’d be no hike alone tomorrow with playmate Terry.

Whoosh. A strafing hunter’s wings stole the boy’s breath, and established who’s boss at night on the Rocky Mountain plains.

What a hoot.

He remained standing, surrounded by creepy night sounds, that owl hooting away, not too distant cracking branches, thrilled by the dangers. At a distance, wolves howled. Arny’s heart ached from the sorrow in their song; a wolf pup was dying. He felt one with them. The boy tiptoed away from the tent to the camp perimeter, cocked his head, and let out a little howl. He’d save the pup tomorrow after he and Terry reached their lookout point.

Arny entered his tent and dosed off dreaming a favorite fantasy. He became early boy, stone and spear, running and hunting with wolves.


The next day, Arny and his playmate rubbed and bumped each other between Hemlock shrubs, squashing fragrant blue wheat grasses, and budding Lady’s Tresses. Their binoculars were up, padded elbows down on a gravel bar overlooking the Rocky Mountains’ lower meadows. They were tight and Arny was restless. The cool late afternoon mountain breezes combed the meadows and blew away the gnats. He knew he didn’t have much time left to do it.

“There she goes. I’m going down. I want you to stay here pumpkin, no matter what.” Arny cared for his cute friend with round face.

“Don’t Arny, she’ll kill you.”

“She won’t be back for twenty-two minutes. Don’t worry Terry. You’ll be proud and the pup will have his mom.” For nearly a second full day Arny and Terry had been watching the den, the hole the pup fell in, and the frantic mother pacing back and forth. Arny knew something had to be done.

Terry blurted, “My hero.” She blew a kiss.

“Shh.” Arny slid down the hill, bounded by the den, and lowered himself little by little using the grubby roots from the nearby Red Cedars and shale that encrusted and poked the fourteen-foot deep and skinny hole. The weakened pup offered little resistance. “Oh my little one, you are so cute and so dirty.” Arny kissed the pup, unzipped about halfway, and then slid him between his flannel shirt and thick hooded cotton blend jacket. He zipped up leaving the pup’s head out and struggled up. “We have to get out of here pronto.” Too late. Arny’s noises had brought the other pups out of the den to the top of the hole. Their little yips, frail howl attempts, and an incessant squawking raven lured the pack. Arny peered up at the snarling heads and a piano’s worth of bared ivories. “Uh, oh.”

He stopped two feet from the top, peppered by clumps of rich soil, worms, grass, roots, and pebbles from the large lunging feet above. He shook his head and raised his hood.

“Oh Jesus, help me.” Arny closed his eyes as if at the altar remembering his prayers, pulled the pup out by his scruff, and raised his hand up to a very unhappy family.

Nothing happened.

One of the wolves weaved his fangs by Arny’s fingers and clenched the pup’s scruff. Arny slid his slobbered hand free of the wolf’s mouth. The snarling stopped. They were all still nearby the hole except for the pups, and there they stayed. Maybe they’re having a party. I need one more miracle. Arny decided to climb out, shaking but resolute. He peeked over the surface and met the golden eyes of the pup’s mom. He was certain it was she; an unusual silver, gray, and white face with two symmetrical gray swirls about her eyes forming a scary but beautiful mask. She held a terrifying focus on the boy who dared to touch her baby. She was crouched and waiting for him. He thought, Don’t eat me, I’m tooooo salty. Arny talked to the predator, “Hello, pretty, pretty.”

Like lightning, the mother struck at the boy before he could back down the hole, clamped down with the right amount of force on the hoody about his neck, and with all the strength of four powerful legs continually jerked backwards until he was prone and defenseless. She let go, loomed over the dazed whimpering human pup, bent down, sniffed his mouth, licked once, and pranced over to her brood, grinning back at the boy, or so Arny thought.

What is so funny? Arny started to crawl away but stopped, turned around and sat, looked back at Terry who was smacking her head as if she could have had a V8. Arny said to the mom, “Thank you ma’am.” Only the almost full-grown juveniles, paid attention to him. The rest of the pack was involved in a free for all. The pups and mother retired to the den. One juvenile started wrestling with Arny’s cowboy boot and then a playmate started pulling the other. Five adults surrounded the boy. They sniffed, rubbed up against him, and attempted to corral the exuberant juvenile delinquents. Arny thought it best to unzip and slide off his boots. He started crawling again, leaving his fancy leather gifts to placate the youngsters. When at the bottom of the steep slope, he peeked back at the pack with their backsides elevated facing the hole, pawing dirt. He beamed up to see Terry’s adoring eyes.

“My hero.”

Today's Critting Fun:

2 1000-word excerpts, coming up.

Sharpen your red pencils.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Me? Creatively Juicy?

A question popped into my inbox last week, and I had to stop and really think about it. Then, instead of emailing my reply, I decided it merited a public answer. So here you go.

What is your daily routine? How do you stay so creative and motivated? I’m at such a loss. I read you religiously, admire your ability, covet your creative juices. How do you do it?


It's funny, how our self-perception seldom lines up with the way others see us. Sometimes, it's because we're so hard on ourselves, we can't see the good stuff. Or we might see good stuff without realizing how it's oozing onto others.

So. My daily routine?

Naturally, I can't go into the details of my life, else I'd no longer be anonymous. Suffice it to say that the main thing that keeps my writing going is an almost religious adherence to my Daily Writing Time.

1:30 to 4:00. That's my weekly time-of-day during which nothing else is demanded of me. I have no commitments or obligations, no pre-scheduled poop. And I refuse to make appointments or have meetings during this time.

Monday through Friday, 1:30 to 4:00, you'll find me with Beatrice. Don't bother me.

Okay, I do get distracted. Terribly distracted, sometimes. But overall? That's when I write. Sometimes I head to the coffee shop. Sometimes I curl up on my favorite green chair with my ridiculous, magenta lap desk. Sometimes I sit in the car (hey, it's quiet).

A turning point occurred when a fellow author sent me a spread sheet to keep track of daily word count and the path toward a set goal. This is how I completed the first draft of my YA dystopic in record time. Needed a mammoth overhaul, but it got DONE. And those of you who cheered with me know how good I was feeling right about then.

So that dedicated writing time, coupled with manageable goals, has profoundly affected my productivity. Prior to this life-altering change, a first draft might've rambled on for a year or more. Some days, I didn't even feel like a writer.

It was that bad.

But 2009 has been my Year of Arrival. I'd love to cap it off by landing my dream agent, but alas, I'm still not ready to query the dystopic.

The schedule itself motivates me. I know if I don't get something done during my writing time, I'll feel like tooth fuzz. So I write. And if I can't keep my eyes open because the sleepies have hit, I'll allow myself a power nap before plunging in to the WIP.

I've also made a concerted effort this year to train myself to write to deadlines. It's all about deadlines once you're signed with a publisher, and I'll be darned if I'm going to be one of those authors who never delivers on time. Not I! And writing to a deadline used to be something I feared I could never do.

Meh. The fear has been dispelled. I can do it. I have done it. I will continue to do it.

As for creative juices? Sometimes I despair of them, as we all do from time to time. I think we've all experienced the utter dryness of an empty brain. But I've got amazing, supportive people in my life who keep me fresh.

And at this point, I'd be remiss not to mention the remarkable Mr. A, love of my life and Biggest Supporter Ever. It may sound schmoopy to claim I could never do this without him.

But, um, I could never do this without him.

Well, maybe I could. I'm pretty feisty. But I'd rather not do it without him. He is indispensable.

Good books are indispensable, too, and I've been reading more of those lately. In my genres. Because it's really, really important to do that. If you don't read, you won't write well. I really believe that.

Oh, and there's my faith, the cornerstone of who I am. No, I'm not thumping you over the head with the butt of my Bible (if, indeed, Bibles have butts). Just telling it like it is. The ultimate source of my creative juiciness is Jesus Christ, whom I strive to honor through all that I do.

But you've probably read that in my bio.

Bottom line? I don't see myself as any juicier or more creative than the next writer. The number one change I've made in the past year is the dedication to my writing time. It may sound silly or anal retentive, but it has made a HUGE impact.


And yes, the community that has grown up around this blog has profoundly impacted me. (Have you read the amazing comments from last Friday's blog post? I *heart* you all!!)

I'm fairly sure I will HAVE to drop the red hat when my first novel sells. And you'll see that "Authoress" and "Real Me" are very much the same. Transparency is my hallmark.

Mr. A calls it "blurting things out without thinking." But I think "transparency" sounds better.

And there you have it.

Thank you all for being an important part of my writerly process. And for allowing me to be a part of yours.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Fricassee

I marvel once again at the community that's sprung up here. Truly an unexpected gift, and greatly appreciated.

You'll be shocked to know that I regularly geek out over my stats. No, really. Of course I like to see agents and editors show up; of course I obsess over New York ISPs. All blogging authors do. Right?

If it's not true, don't tell me.

But it goes beyond that. I puzzle over trends, like why I have so many readers in Massachusetts. Not just the main urban areas, but towns with curious names that sound like settings for novels.

And how many writers there are from my old stomping grounds in the Northeast (yeah, yeah, you all know I'm a Yankee. This isn't some kind of new disclosure.).

And if those readers WHO LIVE WHERE I LIVE NOW will ever bump into me at Starbucks and never know who I am.

And how in the world somebody from Bosnia and Herzegovina found me.

And so on.

A fun little exercise, to be sure. But today I'm asking for more. Because I lurve you.

So. Where are you from? How did you find me? How has the COMMUNITY here touched your life?

I'm certain to love reading your comments today!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

CHANGE the plot? Actually CHANGE it?

I've got to go here with you, because it's another one of those writerly moments-of-arrival.

Picture this: Girl finishes second draft of dystopic YA. Girl sends draft to Illustrious Reader. Illustrious Reader pours herself into Girl's work, sending a detailed editorial letter AND--here's the best part--comments in red throughout the entire manuscript.

(Either this Reader is beyond amazing in the World of Writerliness, or she loves me. Or both.)

End result? Illustrious Reader writes, If it looks like I'm asking for a huge rewrite, it's true. I am. And I realize that's exactly what I need to do.

So I put the manuscript aside for a little while, dug into the rewrite of my beloved MG Fantasy. Then, tentatively, I pulled it back out.

And. Wow.

The whole "change the plot" thing? The boogieman that taunts you in your sleep? Your book's a failure! If you have to rewrite plot, you suck! Chuck it all aside! Meh. I've overcome it.

Today, I begin chapter 6. Pressing onward, resolutely.

And loving it! That's the most amazing part of all. Loving my new, actually-doing-something-that-takes-guts protagonist. The firmer worldbuilding foundation. The excitement of paring down prose to clean freshness.

All this, after reading Hunger Games and feeling inept for a day. All this, after telling Mr. A I was going to put the YA away indefinitely.


So press on with me! Press on through your worldbuilding and plotting and tearing apart and re-plotting. The deeper you go into the process, the more BRILLIANT the journey. If you haven't experienced it yet, trust me! And if you have, you're nodding in vigorous agreement.

Weeeee! We lovess being a writer!

Monday, October 19, 2009

And The Winners Are:

Ms. Gardner's Runner-Ups:

8 - The Miser Who Bought the Farm by CharlieBabbitt
24 - Exquisite by Jessica
36 - Counting Down the Pinfall by Mags
38 - The Color of Honey by writer2181

Ms. Gardner's Grand Prize Winner:

27 - Like a Moonshine Bridge by mrodenberg

The prize:

Ms. Gardner requests that each of you send a partial for her consideration. Please email me at facelesswords(at) for submission instructions.


(And sorry for lack of linkableness in this post; I'm pressed for time today.)

Woot and huzzah for EVERYONE who entered.

Secret Agent Unveiled: RACHELLE GARDNER

Warm thanks to the lovely and oh-so-helpful-and-detailed Rachelle Gardner of Wordserve Literary.

Rachelle's bio:

Rachelle Gardner is an agent with WordServe Literary representing both fiction and non-fiction, and specializing in the Christian market. Her fourteen years in publishing have included positions in editorial as well as sales, marketing, and subsidiary rights. She has ghostwritten eight published books and edited more than seventy.

What Rachelle is currently looking for:

Rachelle is looking at all genres of adult fiction except fantasy, sci-fi, and erotica, and prefers stories with strong characters and themes that encourage a life of faith without being churchy. Currently her favorite genres are contemporary women's fiction, historical romance, and romantic suspense. In non-fiction, she’s looking for authors with strong messages (for either a Christian audience or the general market) and significant marketing platforms.

Stay tuned for the winner announcement!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Fricassee

So let's talk about books (something new and different, yes?).

I've asked you what you write. I've asked you what you read. Now I'm asking you what makes a book really, truly ZING.

Forget your "favorite genre." Forget your "favorite author." Forget preconceptions and pet storylines. I'm talking...what is it that makes a reader forget to breathe?


I've just read HUNGER GAMES (a little late, I know). It's not a literary masterpiece. It's not a book I will reread yearly for the rest of my life.

But it's brilliant. It's nonstop tension. It's masterful.

It made me forget to breathe.

It also plunged me into a partial day of I-quit-this-WIP-will-never-work-and-I'm-not-cut-out-to-write-YA-fiction.

Don't worry. I got over it quickly.

But goodness me. A book written in first person present tense? Taking my BREATH away? I hate first person and I hate present tense, and this was a double whammy. Yet it's done so well, so seamlessly, that one forgets. I can't imagine reading the story any other way.

Yes. Brilliant.

And here I sit, stumbling over word choices for explaining WHY I've been so impacted by this novel. I literally stopped life to finish reading it on Wednesday. Not that it took long; for all its beauty and tension, it's an easy read. Fluid.

And ruthless. I simply had to know what happened next. Of course it's obvious the protagonist will live, since she's the one telling the story. But there's so much more at stake than that.

I am undone.

I'm also encouraged to have gotten over the punched-in-the-stomach feeling quickly. My entire afternoon today is dedicated to the shredding and refining of my dystopic someday-masterpiece.

Oh yes. Someday. A near future someday, too. Not an ages-from-now someday.

Your turn. Talk to me about that elusive -- or not-so-elusive -- ZING. What is it? Where have you found it?

How do you CREATE it?

I'm listening!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

40 Secret Agent

GENRE: Mystery

It all started with a penny.

When the elevator doors went their separate ways, I stepped out, and it bounced off my head and jumped into my black suede bag.

Cascading waterfalls of light fell across the marble walls of the Chicago Chronicle as I looked for the source. I shielded my eyes from the penetrating October sun and scanned the lobby.

Nothing above but empty space, so I knew I was the target.

You can't get much clearer than a knock on the noggin, but what message were the spirits sending me?

I fished through my bag and pulled out the penny. Flipped it over, as I always did, and checked the date. The year I was born. From my experience that could only mean one thing.

Trouble ahead.

It might seem strange to some people that a reporter for Chicago's north side paper believed in silly things like superstitions. Or pennies from heaven. Especially since I’ve dedicated my adult life to fact-checking and truth-seeking, no matter where it lead. And in this town, it could lead straight to the morgue. But those people never met my Irish grandmother.

Grandma Geraghty insists everyone call her Birdie, short for Brighid, Celtic goddess of fire and hearth. The name means 'one who exalts herself' and, well, let's just say that it suits her.
I pocketed the penny and crossed the lobby floor, headed for the revolving doors and a much-needed coffee break when Bruce Springsteen started shouting out Thunder Road.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

39 Secret Agent

TITLE: That Guy, That Girl
GENRE: Women's Fiction

Remember That Guy in high school? The one who knew he looked good and used it to his advantage? The football jock who got the team to the championship and led them to victory? The guy whose biggest decision was to choose which “lucky” girl would get to do his homework? That Guy?

Okay. Now, remember That Girl on the honor roll? The mousy, intellectual editor of the high school paper? The slightly pudgy girl who didn’t go to school dances because nobody asked her?

That Girl was me, Jennifer Rainer Nichols—also known as “Brainer” in my formidable grade school years. And also running extremely late for a job interview.

And That Guy was Ryan Ridgeway, who just happened to be standing in front of me in line at Wal-Mart in Oxford, Mississippi.

He turned to his right to make a last-minute gum or mint selection. His sandy blond hair fell over his forehead, just like I remembered in high school. I bit my bottom lip. The years had been kind to him.

I mean, he looked good. He stood at about 6’3”, a polo shirt covering his broad shoulders. The image of him wearing his football uniform popped into mind, but flitted away when his green eyes flickered to mine.

I sucked in my breath. Did he know me?

His smile, while polite, was not one of recognition.

38 Secret Agent

GENRE: Women's Fiction

As I walked to class, the wind slapped my face, waking me from a stupor. Wake up, Elizabeth. Life is short. Get over it and stop feeling sorry for yourself. In the distance, I saw a woman lift a baby from a carriage. The blanket billowed behind her. I averted my eyes and quickened my pace to the arboretum, fighting against the wind and my despair.

My sensible shoes clicked along the sidewalk as I passed other students. I gawked at one group collected under a tree so young they could have been my children. Domestic life in suburbia felt worlds away from this college campus. Apparently, new fashions had hatched: pierced noses, low-riding jeans, bare bellies, all inviting me to stare. I remembered wearing jeans and baggy sweatshirts in college, and had stepped into this time warp here and now. Feeling conspicuous, I adjusted my new book bag to conceal the pink and green polka dotted cardigan.

I thought about what brought me to this class and remembered the flowers that appeared on my doorstep. Such a sweet gesture, really, but perplexing as the attached note read:

Dear Elizabeth, We hope you feel better soon and wanted to share with you a class we think you would absolutely love. It is called “Plants Like People.” Hope to see you back at the club soon. Warmly, Your friends at the Forest Hills Gardening Club.

“Why on earth would the women at the gardening club send me this?”

37 Secret Agent

TITLE: Christmas In the Smokies
GENRE: Romance

“Let’s see if I have this right.” Tina Cole leaned back, gave the stump a once over.

“Think so.”

“So, what you’re saying is . . .,” she shook away wood shavings, and dislodged a splinter stuck between the strap and her heel. “With this thing you call an axe, I’m supposed to hit the log and split it in half?”

“Right.” Hank Gordon smiled, folded his arms over a rock-solid chest, then gestured with a thumb for her to pick up the axe. “The log, not the stump.”

Not that she could tell, but she was a guest in his home. So when did hospitality kick in? Tina gritted her teeth. So the axe wouldn’t cut into her long thin skirt, pulled it tight between her legs to form pants. She eye-balled the stump again. Okay. There was no reason to work herself into a stew since the man’s intention was for her to handle the chore. Alone.

How hard could it be to split a log? Hank was intent she carry her own weight and she would. Still, what harm would it be to try to appeal to his sense of macho-man logic once more?

“Shouldn’t you at least cut a log so I can see how it’s done?” Tina scraped her teeth across her lower lip, then grinned in spite of the situation when she thought of her sister. Wouldn’t she be horrified if she knew where her sister was and what she was doing?

36 Secret Agent

TITLE: Counting Down the Pinfall
GENRE: Quirky Commercial Fiction

You don’t run a pawn shop within the city limits of Boston without weathering the occasional incident here and there, but holy f*** almighty Mack had not seen this one coming. The girl wasn’t much over five feet tall and she was skinny, but not drug-strung-skinny. She didn’t look nervous or too confident. She didn’t look a whole lot of anything at all, really, other than damn good in an interesting and off-setting sort of way.

The long blond curls that fell alongside her face and danced above the glass of his display case had been something of a distraction. She looked, kinda bored, down into the rows of jewelry and keepsakes precious to people other than those who’d sold them to him, and her dark lashes brushed lightly across her cheeks. Those details had been mitigating factors as well, so it was what it was.

She turned her clear blue eyes up to his and asked if he had any antique thimbles for sale. Who the hell comes in to rob a pawn shop in the heart of Allston Center looking for antique thimbles?

Mack leaned forward against the counter and told her not at the present moment. An item like that was bound to be luck of the draw at any given time, but he did have a pair of one-of-a-kind button hole scissors—solid gold, not plate—in the back that once belonged to a personal seamstress to Queen Victoria.

She said her grandmother didn’t sew.

35 Secret Agent

TITLE: Queen of the Crescent City
GENRE: Historical Fiction

Aimée had no warning that he was coming, but she should have. In her experience, such an event never remained secret for long, and that she had not been told was all the more hurtful. Perhaps the others were afraid that she would run away to the Bayou Saint-Jean or some similar place, and that they would be punished for her behavior. But even so, her sister Désirée certainly knew what was coming and did not choose to tell her, though she had ceased to confide in Aimée in several months.

She had been in the kitchen of the Legendre townhouse when Toussaint summoned her. Toussaint was Maître Dominic's valet, and he accompanied his master everywhere, always smartly dressed in the gay gold and royal blue Legendre livery. Aimée handed the knife she was using to Marthe, the old cook who struggled to hide her arthritis from Dominic's butler Lucien. The air was humid for January, and in the heat of the smoky, fly-infested kitchen Aimée had begun to perspire. Quickly she splashed water on her face, smoothed and retied the tignon over her hair and shook out her russet skirts. Then she quietly followed Toussaint upstairs and through the gallery to the townhouse's formal parlor.

There two men sat in exaggerated positions upon elaborately carved rosewood chairs lined by plush green velvet. Toussaint refilled their glasses with dark amber bourbon from a crystal decanter and retreated.

34 Secret Agent

TITLE: Presumed Alive
GENRE: Mystery/Romance

Close to midnight with no wind. Lake Michigan at its wave-lapping quietest. Four dead souls were found at the lovers’ point in Centennial Park, Wilmette, Illinois.

A late night jogger enjoyed the slowly approaching coolness of the evening. He wasn’t sure what attracted his attention. When the police asked, he guessed his eyes were drawn to the four in the car, two women sitting next to the men, front and back, because they were not embracing. Just the opposite, each head had swayed outwards towards the side windows of the car. The cheek of the woman in front was pressed hard, pancaked, against the window glass of the passenger side door.

The jogger approached, only slightly altering his path, expecting to hear voices. Students at the nearby university often parked to watch romantic sunsets or some high school students, desperate for privacy, would snuggle against each other for precious moments before their curfew. They’d be attempting to hide from view exactly where their hands were wandering. No, he wasn’t some kind of pervert, he told the plain clothes policeman with the insulting manner. He was just curious and things looked wrong.

When he jogged closer, then ran in place trying to get a good look into the car, he decided the four had simply fallen asleep. Their eyes were all shut. That would explain it. They‘d been watching the end of the day, had talked about things that lovers do, then, peacefully, delightfully fell into pleasant dreams.

33 Secret Agent

GENRE: Thriller

He waited on cold damp rocks inside a small cleft in the shoreline, hiding even in the blackness. At times he turned away, uncertain he truly wanted to see the signal, two quick dots of light on the waters of the narrow channel before him, both an ending and beginning.

The moonless night proved well chosen. One of the highest tides of the year crested within the hour and only occasional translucent colored streaks from the northern lights disturbed the darkness. The relatively calm water, a welcome change from gale seas days earlier, meant easier access.

He stood, resolute but anxious. Years of failure, disillusion and resentment merged with an edged excitement and culmination of purpose. No longer would the bleak Orcadian landscapes frame his ruptured life. This night he exacted retribution.

He left little behind. The small shop and dank, cramped living quarters beneath already felt distant and remote and he claimed no real friends, no one he let close, only his wife dead two years earlier and the primary reason he came to the shore. The others would remember his name and through him hers.

Only the water and the tides mattered. An unyielding ten knot ocean current poured into one end of the great naval harbor and a taut tidal race from the North Sea ebbed and flowed from the opposite side. For centuries the strong currents provided a natural deterrent against intruders but those who watched and waited and learned the ways of the water knew their secret.

32 Secret Agent

TITLE: Betrayed
GENRE: Historical Romance

Amber sensed the tension as soon as she stepped into the Charter room. The air was stifled with the macabre gloom of ancient weapons that lined the walls, some stained red where blood had seeped deep into the wood. The window slits allowed precious little light, making this chamber that much darker and colder than any other in Castle Spedlin.

Her uncle had his back to her. William Jardin was a beast of a man, standing at least two heads above her. His plaid hung on a wide girth and looped around the thick mat of ginger hair covering his otherwise naked back.

She frowned when she saw Mary huddled in a shadowed corner, bony fingers clasped over her heart.

"Go," Amber mouthed urgently, but the older woman seemed to be struck immobile, her eyes wide and glassy with the fear that was a constant presence since they'd crossed into the Scottish borderland.

Amber turned a hard stare on her uncle's formidable back, watching as he traced a finger almost lovingly along the edge of a wooden spear. William's coarse threats and raving had withered Mary into a fragile, timid ghost. Her former nursemaid was more like a mother to her. Amber's heart fumed at the man responsible.

Lord, what I'd do for a whisper of the evil William Jardin accuses me of! I'd strike him down with a fire bolt from hell and flick his ashes with my toe. Inserting herself firmly between Mary and her uncle, Amber said boldly, "You summoned me?"

31 Secret Agent

TITLE: “Between Clubs”
GENRE: Commercial/sports fiction

If you were going to draw up a perfect day for golf, it would look like this: a sparkling spring afternoon in northern California, warm with a light, fresh breeze. A lush green carpet of a golf course, threaded with groves of trees and dotted with bunkers like whitened teeth. In all directions are rolling brown hills, azure sky and sunshine. For millions of golfers this would be paradise. But for the guys I was playing with, this wasn’t paradise. It was just another day to post a score or barf on their khakis.

The course was deserted, except for the eight of us. One group was walking up the eighteenth fairway, tanned legs and polished shoes pacing the final yards, their heads bowed, their faces in shadow.

Our group was at the seventeenth. Mike O’Hearn stood with his arms crossed and his gaze fixed in the middle distance. It was so quiet I could almost hear him grinding the enamel off his teeth. Casey Blanton angled the weight of his slender body on his hip, rolling his golf ball through his fingertips and examining it for minute imperfections. I wandered over to my golf bag, grabbed my towel and brushed a few grass clippings off my wedge. So much of golf was silent ritual, the proper way to mark golf balls, repair divots and pull flagsticks, a tacit code of deportment regulating when you spoke, where you stood, and how to avert your eyes when watching became unbearable.

30 Secret Agent

TITLE: Angel on the Wall
GENRE: Contemporary Christian

She wasn’t alone.

Footsteps skulked towards her. A deep vibration could be felt from where she sat on the cold cement floor; slow and heavy. A whimper broke the deafening silence. She shook as each step drew nearer, fear threatened to consume her.

The air held the nauseating stench of sulfur. It lingered and settled into the pores of her skin. Trying to escape the permeating odor, she twisted her head. The acrid smell worsened as she felt an icy chill tease her left cheek. Until now, the deep jarring pain had barely registered in her mind. Movement caused it to intensify and added a new sting; a sharp object was tore into her cheek. She felt the blood drip onto her bare shoulder.

She was cold.

Footsteps closed in to where she lay huddled on the damp, frigid floor. Goosebumps covered her bare skin. The smell grew stronger, overpowering her with its potency. Her mouth was gagged, allowing no sound to escape.

The dull pain on her wrists became unbearable. Her hands were bound behind her back. She was powerless to move them. She frantically searched for her attacker. She arched her head and struggled to adjust to the lack of light in an attempt to see past through the darkness. It was an impossible task. She, who could see all that was natural and supernatural, was blinded.

She was afraid.

The whimpers became louder and harder. One after another, wave upon wave, until they grew into a muffled scream.

29 Secret Agent

TITLE: Hand Picked
GENRE: Romance/Light Paranormal

Big, fat, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me tears threatened to somersault down Haven Montgomery’s face like a dam unleashed on an unsuspecting desert. Forced to keep the flood at bay or risk reprimand, she blinked them away while bumping her way through carousing passengers anxious to set sail on a single’s cruise.

Her flawless escape-tactics hit a snag when she zigged to the right to avoid a bartender and instead rammed into a naked male chest. The impact, combined with her uber-fabulous Manolo Blahniks, sent her into a teetering dance of balance. Her hands flew up in search of a stabilizing force and connected with male muscle. “I’m . . . .”

His hands shot out and landed on her butt successfully evaporating the apology on the tip of her tongue and causing her breathing to hiccup. The parts of her he was intimately palming immediately shot a signal to her brain, “Hello, butt molded into male hands –move.”

Her reaction wasn’t smooth, his grip wasn’t tight and when the tango ended, her spiky heel was digging into the top of his foot.

“Oh,” was the only word to flee from her lips.

“Oh,” he echoed, in a voice tinged with pain.

She stared straight ahead and took a deep breath, embarrassment clouding her vision. When the fog cleared, she realized her hands weren’t only resting on his pecs, they were clutching them.

Dear God let him be drunk and not remember any of this in the morning.

28 Secret Agent

GENRE: Women’s Fiction

A night without a date or lover was rare for Holly, and when she heard the phone ring, she ran down the hall to answer. Unfortunately it was her mother.

“I signed the lease this afternoon, sweetheart,” Leah said. “You’ll change your mind, I just—”

“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not moving in with you after graduation?” Holly ground her teeth. It was a new habit, something she first noticed a few weeks ago. Last year a neurologist said her mother, not a brain tumor, was the cause of her headaches, and now she prayed jaw pain would be the worst of her physical problems this semester.

“You’re not staying in Boston. I forbid it. You’re moving back to Chicago and that’s final. It’s about time you show a little respect, young lady. Remember who supports you.”

“You forget nurses are employable.”

Prone to mood swings, Leah’s anger turned to tears. “Please don’t tell me you’ve already lined up a job somewhere. Please don’t break my heart.”

“I’m hanging up on the count of three. One—”

“Don’t do this to me.”

“I’m hanging up now, Mother. I have to study. Two—”

“No. Please.”

“Three.” Holly slammed the phone on the hook, slumped into her chair and massaged her jaw. She couldn’t take it any longer. She had hoped becoming a nurse would help cut the cord; the guaranteed job was why she selected this major. It was clear now that escaping Leah required more. A husband, perhaps.

27 Secret Agent

GENRE: Up-market commercial fiction

“June’s too common a name,” Grandma said when I was born in early summer thirty-five years ago. “And this girl, she’s going to be special.” So Momma named me July because, except for her life-long habit of opening her legs to boys she wasn’t married to, Momma did what Grandma told her.

Sometimes Momma and Grandma called me Jul. Grandma said that was part of being special since it sounded like “Jewel,” and that’s what I was—a precious jewel. But when Grandma turned her back, Momma twisted my hair around her fist. “If you were really a jewel,” she whispered pulling me close, “I’d sell you in a minute and take the cash south to Vegas to try my luck.”

So July I was and Jul, too, though more often, as I got older and went to school, they called me “Trash Bin” because everyone in Cedar Pocket knew what Momma did with the men who visited our trailer.

And my whole life, my best friend was that boy next door, big Sammy Bear.

“You shoot him, and I’ll cut off his ears,” Sammy said whenever one of Momma’s men had touched me. Then we’d get to planning how we could bury the man in the woods, covering up the fresh dirt with hemlock branches. Even picked out the best spot on Vancouver Island, at the base of an old-growth cedar that’s been there a thousand years and more. The Grandmother Tree, they call it, because it’s surrounded by its children’s children.

26 Secret Agent

TITLE: The Emerald Girl
GENRE: Thriller

The knock at the door is so hard the glass rattles. We have few visitors, leaving one possibility: the steer are out. I can see my animals running down the side of the road, thousand pound bovines built of solid muscle, giving my insurance carrier indigestion.

I throw my book to the living room table without bothering to place a marker, wondering which neighbor I pissed off now and tripping over the up-step between kitchen and hallway leading to the door.

Ann is pulling laundry out of the wash machine as I pass the utility room. Mason, our one year old son, is crawling underfoot, preventing me from getting to the door.

The urgency of the knock is muted when I see the woman standing on the other side of the door. Her short black hair is messed from the wind and her slacks show a nice contour of a**; something I appreciate. I open the door praying she doesn’t hand me a pamphlet telling me ‘Jesus Loves You’.

I step back as I open the door, startled. Two men in dark blue suits stand to the side and behind the woman.

“Mr. Melvin Humphrey?” Her voice is firm, yet polite; all business. She extends her hand. I take it, feeling like a sheep ready to be sheared.

“What can I do for you?” The words catch in my throat with a click.

“I’m Agent Alice Hanson with the FBI,” she introduces herself, showing me her badge.

25 Secret Agent

GENRE: Commercial Fiction

It's only life, just live it.

Jerry Dunningham wasn't sure why that phrase came to mind right now considering he hadn't heard it in years. It was a phrase on some random supposed motivational poster that he had hung in the main hallway of his finance company years ago.

Blinking a few times, Jerry tried to focus his eyesight. He had just woken up and was in a hospital bed. As his ears began to come to reality, he heard a voice. As if someone was turning the knob on a radio, the sound slowly got louder.

"I'm sure this isn't an intentional thing, Mr. Dunningham, but, of course, because of our current state of affairs and your profession. . ."

The voice dragged on. The man was seated at the end of the bed holding a notepad. He spoke and spoke, most words weren't fully registering with Jerry. Most of his senses were still regaining their functions. He flexed his fingers a few times and they felt sore. He tried to arch his back hoping to relieve pressure, but it only caused more pain. With this happening, two words did catch his attention:

"Attempted suicide."

"Wait, what?" Jerry said in a groggy voice, interrupting the man.

"I'm not saying you did, Mr. Dunningham - I'm just asking, well, what have your feelings been since your finance company closed?"

Feelings? Jerry thought.

He looked down and remembered the crash. He was driving, dazed, thinking about his life when it had happened.

24 Secret Agent

GENRE: Historical Fiction

There were two things in the world Evan MacAllister found irresistible—an exquisitely-shaped woman and an exquisitely-shaped diamond.

Of course, those weren’t the only things that Evan enjoyed. He adored pressed duck, American bourbon and the tawdriest form of burlesque theatre. He read The Queen as eagerly as any housewife and gambled at the races like a laborer on a Bank Holiday. And he had an unexplained weakness for Norfolk jackets.

But nothing compared to his love for women and diamonds. Two vices that could get a man into trouble more quickly than others. And, incidentally, the two responsible for Evan’s current predicament.

When he first spotted Sarah Purves in the drawing room at Alexander Darling’s house, pale and poised and sporting that flashing rectangle of carbon on her second finger, the only word that came to mind was, “Exquisite.”

Both were guests at the Darlings’ country house for the last hunt of the season. Sarah was lonely and bored; Evan was willing to entertain both Sarah and her diamond. Without much difficulty, he enticed her into a dark corner or two. Sarah began eagerly looking for Evan every evening and then, just as eagerly, looked for an unoccupied room.

One night Sarah was stretched across the billiards table, Evan sucking each of her fingers teasingly. He slipped her ring off with his tongue and, just as quickly, pushed on another ring that had been tucked inside his cheek. Whenever she next looked down at her ring, however often it was she did that, she would see a clear rectangle glinting with rainbows, the same as she always saw.

23 Secret Agent

TITLE: Vastania

Anne Wolfford, the king of Vastania’s eldest child by birth and the Duchess of Dolomir by marriage, steered her horse onto the winding pine-lined gravel lane. She caught site of Hansden Palace, her sprawling childhood home, as her heaving chestnut gelding rounded a bend. A light, powdery snow fell over the maze of gothic spires and smoking chimneys that capped the fieldstone complex.

Perched on a hill overlooking Hansden City, Vastania’s walled capital, the palace had served as the primary residence of Vastania’s kings for nearly three centuries. The backdrop of a century-long feud between the kingdom’s northern and southern gentry, Hansden Palace’s fortress-thick walls had witnessed a litany of assassinations, plots and bloody coups. Most of the men who ascended to Vastania’s throne presided in the ancient dwelling briefly before meeting violent ends at the hands of rivals or, just as often, backbiting kin.

Anne’s father, the long-reigning King Richard, was a notable exception to Vastania’s hapless monarchs. Exiled as a child when the tides of civil war went against his family, he returned years later to claim the crown by right of conquest. In the early years of his reign, he succeeded in quelling the country’s stubborn feudal wars and had since presided over a period of uncharacteristic calm and prosperity. As such, Anne had no first-hand knowledge of her beloved home’s grisly history. Her happy, formative years spent playing in the palace’s labyrinth of corridors and lush gardens contrasted sharply with the tragic fates of Hansden’s ghosts.

22 Secret Agent

TITLE: An Irish Adventure
GENRE: Women's Fiction

Max was the boyfriend I had wanted all my life. He was cute and funny, with a mop of curly wheat-colored curls and a bohemian dress-style of frayed cords and moth-eaten argyle sweaters. He read complicated, eclectic books like “Being and Time”, wrote poetry and composed songs. And he was an amazing kisser. He just had this incredible innate skill in knowing what felt good. I could kiss him for hours.

Unfortunately, Max also liked to smoke up several times a day. He would smoke a bowl as soon as he got up and seldom had a waking hour where he wasn’t high. Before we started dating I hadn’t minded his pot addiction, since he always seemed just as witty and sweet whether he was high or not. But after a while, I got fed up with the way his life centered on the next time he would be lighting up a joint.

“Just go through one day without smoking up,” I begged him one night. “It would mean so much to me.”

“You really think you’d like me better if I didn’t smoke up?” he asked.

“I really think I would.”

He promised that very next day would be totally drug-free.

The following afternoon we walked to the park by the lakeshore and climbed around the rocks lining the beach, enjoying a rare warm spell during the usually bitter Chicago winter.

“See?” I told him, “You don’t have to get high to have a good time.”

Max laughed so long and hysterically I began to feel suspicious.

21 Secret Agent

GENRE: Romantic Suspense

Less than an hour and the hostages would die. That thought pushed Army Intelligence Officer Captain Caitlin Stanwyck to the limit of her reserves. No way. She refused to let those men be killed by terrorists.

Hunkered down into the seat of her motorcycle, Caitlin roared up the New Jersey Turnpike toward the Lincoln Tunnel. In the dark, her black leather pants and jacket, black boots, and padded black gloves made her almost invisible.

Wind swirled around her full-face molded plastic helmet, but even inside her protective shell, the smell of synthetic chemicals from refineries stung up her nose. The speedometer indicated 70 mph, yet her vehicle had plenty more to give. Caitlin accelerated, shifted her balance, and squealed her cycle around a curve.

Above her head, a deadly sound intruded.

The rotors of a low-flying helicopter punctuated the air with flat, chopping sounds that reverberated in her ears. Damn. The copter must belong to the Turnpike Police or worse yet, the terrorists holding forty-nine bankers hostage at Lincoln Center. The terrorist payoff resided in the leather saddle bags that hung over the sky-blue color-matched panels on her bike.

Where the hell was Keller? This was getting too complicated.

She wove in and out of traffic, eluding the light that shined down from the chopper.

Up ahead, the entrance to the tunnel loomed dark and mysterious. Caitlin squinted into her side mirror. The guys in the Arctic white Hummer limousine who'd been following her for an hour inched closer.

20 Secret Agent

GENRE: Mystery/Suspense (steamy romance)

“This is not a date!” Her stilettos paced a tempo on the hardwood floor, echoing throughout his sparsely furnished bachelor apartment.

“Well, it kinda is.” He winked, trying to play the cute card but she wasn’t buying it. No gain on play.

She gazed at him with the same detached air, like a scientist observing a lab rat. “This is strictly a business arrangement.”

“We could make it a date.” He patted the sofa beside him. “Sit down and relax.” He flashed his boyish grin.

She huffed out an impatient sigh. “That’s against the rules. You better get this right or I’m outta here.” She turned as if to leave.

The rules again. “Wait! I worship you. You’re a goddess. You drive me wild with desire. I think about you all the time.”

“And?” A smile played at the corners of her mouth.

“And-—” He loosened his tie. “The thought of you turns me into carbon steel and warm butter at the same time.” He ran his fingers through his hair, cropped short in an attempt to control the curl.

“And?” She took three steps toward him, stopping so close the scent of her perfume hit him like a fist. She tapped one of her red stillettos.

He stared at her pedicured toes, gleaming as bright as the gold ankle bracelet he’d bought her. “And because I’m your worthless slave to use and abuse. Do with me as you please, just do me.”

“Not an option,” she said.

19 Secret Agent

TITLE: Throw Pillows and Other Complications of the Modern Vampire
GENRE: Paranormal Romance

The girl looked so incredibly fragile. Skin as wan as rose quartz, eyes so lightly brushed with blue they were almost clear like sparkling diamonds, her hair was spun white gold. Other than the pale sheen of her skin, everything about her was so utterly opposite of him. Little did she know, never did she even speculate that the dark handsome man walking past her, could, within seconds, crush her into nonexistence.

Someone so delicate working behind the counter of a 24-hour convenient store in this seedy neighborhood and during the depths of the night confounded him. Better yet it intrigued him, compelled him to a heightened curiosity.

She was what lured Machaon into such a wretched human mecca.

The sting of gasoline was still fresh in his nostrils as Machaon walked through the parking lot and stepped up onto the crumbling sidewalk. He eased open the large, thick pane of glass framed in black metal. The tinny, electronic bell rang “ding-dong.” It was truly a trivial notion that such a piddling sound would by any means alert the frail waif of the darkness lurking between the rows of abhorrent plastic wrapped goods.

His onyx eyes rolled at the sight of tumbling frozen liquid, imitations of fruit in garish neon colors. The nostrils of his subtle aquiline nose flared at the putrid scent of highly salted, highly preserved, dead animal flesh. The greasy links were in constant undulation atop a sizzling cooking rack ready for some grubby human hand to snatch one up.

28 Secret Agent

GENRE: Women’s Fiction

A night without a date or lover was rare for Holly, and when she heard the phone ring, she ran down the hall to answer. Unfortunately it was her mother.

“I signed the lease this afternoon, sweetheart,” Leah said. “You’ll change your mind, I just—”

“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not moving in with you after graduation?” Holly ground her teeth. It was a new habit, something she first noticed a few weeks ago. Last year a neurologist said her mother, not a brain tumor, was the cause of her headaches, and now she prayed jaw pain would be the worst of her physical problems this semester.

“You’re not staying in Boston. I forbid it. You’re moving back to Chicago and that’s final. It’s about time you show a little respect, young lady. Remember who supports you.”

“You forget nurses are employable.”

Prone to mood swings, Leah’s anger turned to tears. “Please don’t tell me you’ve already lined up a job somewhere. Please don’t break my heart.”

“I’m hanging up on the count of three. One—”

“Don’t do this to me.”

“I’m hanging up now, Mother. I have to study. Two—”

“No. Please.”

“Three.” Holly slammed the phone on the hook, slumped into her chair and massaged her jaw. She couldn’t take it any longer. She had hoped becoming a nurse would help cut the cord; the guaranteed job was why she selected this major. It was clear now that escaping Leah required more. A husband, perhaps.

18 Secret Agent

GENRE: Women's fiction

I wasn’t sure how long I lay on the floor, curled in a way to most would’ve looked broken. My cheek became hot and itchy as it rested against the rough loops of carpet. With my knees bent toward my chest, my back ached. I didn’t want to move though. My earlier jagged sobs had subsided to slow and even waves of breath. Concentrating on the rhythm of the quiet house, I welcomed the monotony of sounds not usually heard in my ignorant busy life. The tick of the clock in the kitchen and the tap of the ceiling fan chain as it swayed around in a circle.

The phone chirped like an excited cricket and ripped me from my silent trance. I held my breath and squeezed my knees prisoner against my body. I couldn’t lose it again. It had taken me over an hour to calm down. I counted down the rings with hope the machine’s volume was low enough to allow me the little peace I had found. Three…two…one…

After a long beep, my voice, sounding happily medicated, filled the room.

“You’ve reached Josie and Kevin. Please leave a message and we’ll get back to you.”

I closed my eyes, squeezing out more tears. I made it sound so easy. Josie and Kevin.

“Jojo? You there? Jojo? I need to talk to you and I don’t have a number for you to call back. Pick up, pick up, pick up!”

Typical Anna. Releasing my knees and peeling my face away from the carpet, I crawled toward the phone. My back finally getting relief, I took a deep breath before pressing the talk button.

“I’m here Anna. What’s wrong now?”

17 Secret Agent

TITLE: Daddy Complex
GENRE: Women’s Fiction

My heart feels like it could explode in my chest. Something is terribly
wrong and I feel like I need to do something, but what can I do? Did he
have an accident? Did the guys go out for a drink afterwards? Is he
even thinking about my feelings at all? I really hate to get this
feeling. Every woman knows this feeling, the one where you don’t know
what to do and feel completely out of control. I am light headed and my
heart is pounding so loudly that I can actually hear it inside my head.
I know something has happened but I don’t know what it is. I am
terrified to know what it is.

As I pace back and forth in front of the picture window, it is hard to
believe that it is only 7:00pm. It feels much later. From this vantage
point, I can see all of the drive-way and a good distance down the street
but there isn’t a car in sight. The street lights are just starting to
come on. Old Mr. Matheson from the next block is walking his ancient
Boston bull dog. Acorns drop from the stately oak tree in the front yard
onto the pavement making a familiar plunking sound. The cat across the
street at the Johnson’s house is chasing the same imaginary squirrel that
he chases every day but never catches. The late summer Georgia heat
makes everything feel like it is being viewed through a veil of cheese

16 Secret Agent

TITLE: Murder on a Moonlit Sea
GENRE: Mystery

Cool light filtered through the truck’s passenger window onto Anya’s long, crossed legs. She leaned back against the head rest, waiting in tired silence for Willie and watching the light flicker in criss-crossing patterns over her lap – like her mind, moving between the dead deckhand and this ridiculous stop on the way to her hotel room.

Then the light was gone. The new darkness caused her to turn and look out the window. Foggy from her warm breath, it showed only a blurred image of two hulking, unkempt men. Suddenly they moved in closer and her door was yanked open. She could smell the stench of old alcohol and tobacco that overwhelmed even their nauseating body odor.

“Hey B****,” the man with stringy dark hair said, as he loomed directly in front of Anya, blocking her exit from the car. She looked at him with an even, expressionless gaze, then turned to his companion. Finally, without a word, she faced away from both. She had seen them, considered their threat, and simply dismissed it.

“She must be shy,” said the other.

The closest one reached forward, his dirty fingers greedily grabbing for Anya. She felt the bite of his jagged nails through her coat as he clutched her forearm. Beneath her soft, suede sleeve, Anya’s forearm flexed, her muscle pushing against the weakest part of his grip with a strength that her elegance did not betray. In one motion she turned to face them and rose to her feet, forcing them both backwards.

15 Secret Agent

TITLE: In Darkness Reborn
GENRE: Paranormal Romance

The Baharak left her alone to watch Jakk die. A suffocating sensation tightened her throat. Aysia leaned against his bedside, her legs shaking with the effort to keep her standing. With a hand that refused to stop shaking, she stroked her ward’s hot cheek, sliding her fingertips through the damp, copper hair lying in limp strands on his moist skin. He moaned, his head moving from side to side. Agony etched deep lines into his skin, giving his young features the illusion of advanced age.

Jakk wouldn’t last much longer. His terror-filled wails, soft now, came farther and farther apart. Each ragged inhale and choked exhale drew him from her. When he died, she’d have failed to keep her promise. Failed to do her duty.

And you’ll be all alone. She shuddered at the reminder she couldn’t escape and pulled her hand back. Folding her arms about her waist, she held tight and rocked. Anguish squeezed her heart, making it impossible to take a deep breath. Unable to watch his pain, she closed her eyes. He made a slight gasp and for a brief moment, silence hung heavily in the room.

Except. . . a tiny noise, a whisper of silk brushing against stone, grabbed her attention. Her eyes snapped open and she pivoted. Her gaze swept around the room. Faint light from two luminas cast numerous shadows on the smooth, granite walls of the large chamber. Flickering darkness mocked her attempts to see the secrets hidden within.

14 Secret Agent

TITLE: The Brevity of Roses
GENRE: Women's Fiction

No one else dined alone. Meredith sat at her usual corner table by the window, watching heavy-laden clouds slide in low over the town and wishing she had waited until tomorrow to spray her roses for mites. Sighing, she turned back to her scallops Provençal, but within seconds, a murmur to her left caused her to glance up again. The sound had come from the three younger women across the room staring wide-eyed toward the restaurant entrance. She followed their gaze. They watched a man—a darkly handsome, exotic man—as the host led him through the dining room.

The shock of recognition nearly choked her.

His face angled away from her, but she could tell. It had to be Ravi. As he took his seat at a nearby table, she lowered her gaze and seized her wine glass, draining it to give her heart time to find its normal rhythm. A mixture of joy and fear and memory jumbled her thinking. Should she speak to him? No; let him make the first move. Should she try to leave now before he noticed her? No; he knows where I live. She was the only reason he would come to this town. But why would he come here, now, after all these years?

When he looked at her now, what would he see? She tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear and smoothed her neckline. If only she were wearing something in salmon. Ravi had loved her dressed in that color; it brought out the blue in her eyes, he said.

13 Secret Agent

TITLE: The Zero Line
GENRE: Suspense/Mystery

Gus Jordan never intended to be a traitor. Money wasn’t a factor—he had plenty of it. Neither was excitement—sailing the icy chop of the Chesapeake in a winter squall was thrilling enough. Saying 'yes' to his best friend's casual recruitment over a late night lager might have been the worst decision he ever made. For a hundred submariners it was fatal.

Selling the young men out to the Soviets was never part of the plan—not his plan, anyway. He recalled the stack of documents, and how he had winced when he held them. Detailed maps of the sub's patrol route, and a complete breakdown of its communications protocol went straight to the enemy. That much, he recalled. What he couldn't recall was why he ever passed the stuff. A meaningful explanation escaped him.

Sitting in his Ford Ranger pickup just outside an antique shop in York, Pennsylvania, Gus took time to reflect on how he had arrived at such an unlikely predicament. The nagging doubts about becoming a spy had done little to stop him from going down that dark and lonely path. At first, accepting the charge seemed the right thing to do. But times had changed, and Gus had grown weary of it all. The government was flailing like a black crappie on a jig pole, and he wondered how much more the US could take. The Vietnam War. Watergate. As decades went, the 70s were starting off with a vile stench. The country was a cesspool of deception. Everyone had something to hide. Especially him. But that was about to change.

12 Secret Agent

TITLE: A Little Salty
GENRE: Women's Fiction

Waking up on my thirtieth birthday next to nothing but my snoring dog was not in my grand plan. Later on, my truck had a flat, and my mother invited me to dinner. That says it all.

Granted, my sister had to go as well, since we share the day by eight minutes, but her life is slightly more charmed than mine. All her little ducks seem to fall in line for her. My ducks just get pissy and argumentative and end up making a mess.

From our parents, I got a gift card to Bath & Body. My sister, Gino, got our grandmother’s opal bracelet to wear at her wedding for something old.

It’s not Gino’s fault, though. She can’t help that she got all the good karma. I got the better a**.

Two days later, my thirty-year-old a** was sprawled over my couch when the phone jolted me out of a coma. I tripped over an afghan, limping from the couch on a half-dead foot, cursing as I answered.

“Are you ready?”

Gino. Sometimes I don’t love her so much. I wedged the phone into the crook of my neck.


“To go. Were you sleeping?”

The pins and needles assaulting me said I was. My bathroom mirror agreed. My curly auburn hair had escaped the clip I normally keep it twisted up in. It flopped out in all directions like unruly corkscrews.

“Must have passed out on the couch,” I said on a yawn. “My hair looks like rodents have been chewing on it.”

11 Secret Agent

TITLE: Crawl
GENRE: Horror

She lays a squirming bundle of leaves in the lap of a ragged skeleton she calls Mother. With broken-nailed fingertips she nimbly unties the package, spilling its living contents onto Mother’s thigh bones. Wriggling night-crawlers, limping crickets, cracked bird eggs, half a mouse carcass. Delicacies. She pats Mother on her dusty head, then squeezes back through the open vent cover. It is her turn to hunt, her turn to feed.

The metal vent is cold on her naked skin. It wakes her up, keeps her sharp. She moves easily up the icy vertical chute and onto the cool stone foundation. She grabs the scattering spiders, stuffing them into her mouth as she scrambles along the ground. In the dark spaces her vision is clear, her memory of this path honed to precision over many, many years.

A hollow space in the wooden walls allows her to climb two stories straight up. Her hands and feet grip warm familiar beams. She heaves herself ever upward, her toughened skin impervious to splintered wood and nagging nails. Twenty feet above the ground, she moves a wall eave aside and scampers out onto a tree limb into the night air.

It is a good night to hunt: bright moonlight, soft earth after a summer rain, quiet grass to stalk from. Wriggling worms are pulled easily from their burrows. Sleeping mice are caught unawares, awaking with a snap of their backs. She basks in the moonlight, savoring her kills.

She has no name.

10 Secret Agent

TITLE: Bite Me, Your Grace
GENRE: Regency Paranormal Romance

“Mother, no!” Angelica cried.

“I cannot have you reading such trash!” Marjory Winthrop, Countess of Pendlebur, shrieked as she threw the book in the fireplace.

Angelica watched in dismay as the pages of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” by Mary Wollstonecraft, curled and blackened in the flames. It didn’t matter that she’d read it enough to recite it verbatim. It killed her to see a precious book destroyed.

Her mother’s furious countenance was nearly as red as her curls. “It’s bad enough that your father turned you into a blue-stocking, with all the Plato and such he raised you on, but if anyone knew you were a radical, your reputation would be blackened beyond redemption, with all hopes of an advantageous marriage turned to dust.”

“Maybe I want my reputation to be ruined, mother.” She sobbed, “Maybe I don’t want to be a brood mare for some stupid cad while he spends my dowry on his mistresses and… Ouch!”

Marjory pinched the skin of her upper arm and hissed, “If we were not going to the Chatsworth ball tonight I would slap you. A lady does not speak of such things.” She threw up her hands, “Now stop crying immediately! I suggest you compose yourself while I fetch Liza to dress you and fix your hair.”

After her mother left, Angelica rubbed her eyes and peeked under her bed. At least her new copy of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was still safe. She frowned at the growing pile of books languishing alongside the dust bunnies.

9 Secret Agent

TITLE: Santorini Sunset
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

Five tiny little words—uttered in less than a second. That’s all it takes to remove every trace of happiness from the heart. To replace hope, joy, love and bliss with despair, sadness, self-doubt and homicidal rage.

I don’t love you anymore.

If four more words are added to the equation, the heart is filled with betrayal, distrust and the need for years of counseling.

I love your sister.

I never actually went into counseling and I certainly never killed anyone, but the thought crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Slow, painful ways to inflict death on the love of my life, Albert, or as he’s now known, my future brother-in-law.

When asked, I’d be hard pressed to define which was worse, my fiancé leaving me for my sister or her asking me to be her maid-of-honor. I close my eyes at night and see my sweet, beautiful, kind, baby sister looking at me with tear-filled, million-dollar eyes—literally, they are insured for that amount—begging forgiveness and asking me to stand up for her during her joyous nuptials.

“I know we hurt you, Caroline, and I’m so sorry. I’ll understand completely if you refuse to be my maid-of-honor, but you’re the best friend I have. I couldn’t imagine my wedding without you by my side.”

I refrained from commenting about how best friends don’t steal fiancés and was quite restrained when I resisted the urge to rip her beautiful blonde hair from her scalp. Everyone knew the breakup wasn’t Gabriella’s fault. It was mine.

8 Secret Agent

TITLE: The Miser Who Bought The Farm
GENRE: Mystery

I’m embarrassed to admit my most vivid memory of that night was of ten minutes in the library with Nick Ransom. In my defense, three of those minutes were damn good minutes and I had no idea the murder of a colleague was only a few hours away.

I was taking refuge from the well-dressed and well-heeled at a party for the Ballantyne Foundation when Ransom eased into the library. I recognized his smooth skin and edgy features. He looked like Batman. Christian Bale Batman, not the other one in the gray leotard and blue underpants.

“Ellie Lisbon,” he said and kissed my cheek. “I’d heard you were Director of the Ballantyne.”

“Well, Nick Ransom,” I said. “How disappointing. I thought you were dead.”

He leaned back on his heels and smiled. “No, not dead yet. Though a sniper in Rio came close.”

I smiled back, but my stomach sizzled and popped as old memories flipped my life like a pancake. I was unprepared and nearly speechless.

Nick Ransom, my college major. I loved him for one whole semester. We rounded three bases over five dates and would’ve slid home on the sixth had he not left me waiting in the rain a week before Christmas. He left a seven word message on my answering machine two days later: “Not our time, Red. You take care.” I never saw him again.

Until now.

7 Secret Agent

GENRE: Mystery

The blonde to my left—she’d introduced herself as “Heidi,” but no one here was using her real name—handed me the patch. The Rune of Life: it was supposed to be a tree: Three thick black sticks, against a red background. It resembled a legless, headless stick figure with its arms raised—something my two year old might draw. I passed it to the woman to my right.

As the patch made its way from one woman to the next, I shifted in the folding chair and looked around. The Aryan Motherhood members looked not unlike any other group of rural, mostly stay-at-home, moms. Everyone was white, of course; and there were lots of sensible haircuts and appliquéd tops.

Our group leader, “Mary,” cleared her throat. She was a slight, plain-looking woman with long brown hair and a serious face.

“Has everyone had a chance to examine the rune?”

A sea of heads bobbed and a murmur of “yeses” rose from the group.

“Okay, then, it’s time for a vote. The Chapter moves to adopt the Rune of Life as its symbol. All in favor, say ‘aye.’”

She was met by chorus of “ayes.”


Silence. No surprise there. In the month that I’d been attending these meetings, I’d yet to hear anyone oppose anything. In the beginning, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t imagine any of these wholesome, earnest women dressed in white sheets, burning crosses. They did strike me as sheep, though, the way they seemed to mindlessly accept whatever they were told. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to incite them to violence.

6 Secret Agent

TITLE: Perfection Bytes
GENRE: Commercial fiction

The day I first met the genie began as the worst day at work ever, not counting the time I’d waltzed into office wearing a transparent shirt without a slip underneath it. That had been an accident, of course.

On the Monday morning in question, I swiped in at the reception early (ten am, the break of dawn by my standards), and ran headlong into a hulking colleague. A flash of sky-blue was all I caught before my head thunked his formidable chest and my tanned leather tote slipped down onto the marble floor of the lobby.

‘Ow!’ I said, massaging my forehead, as I stooped to retrieve my bag.

‘Oh, Nilisha. Did I trip you? I’m so sorry!’

I knew that voice. It grated on my nerves. ‘Get lost, Vik!’

‘So, have you started preparing closure documents for Project Armada?’

He lit up a cigarette right there in the lobby, five feet away from the ‘No Smoking’ sign.

‘No, why would I? It hasn’t even gone for UAT yet. Priya and her team are hard at system testing still.’

‘Oh!’ he said, creasing his lips into a fake smile. ‘Sorry, I thought you knew.’

‘Knew what?’

‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘See ya!’

He ambled out, winking back at Shirin the receptionist as he passed. What was he talking about? How could Armada close? The users hadn’t even set eyes on it.

Shirin said, ‘Nilisha, Ajay was looking for you.’

‘Oh god, what is it now?’

5 Secret Agent

TITLE: Misconception
GENRE: Women's Fiction

“I’m sorry,” I say into the receiver the morning the nurse calls. The boys are running through the house, chasing the puppy, screaming at the top of their lungs with a dog toy chirping in each of their hands. “I didn’t hear you.” They pass through the kitchen and up the stairs, where, coincidentally, the puppy isn’t allowed to go. “It’s mass chaos here. For a second I thought you said I was pregnant.”

There is a pause on the other end of the line, just a slight hesitation, but enough to tell me I heard right. “I did say you’re pregnant, Mrs. Kelly. Just got the labs back this morning. Six weeks along.”

Suddenly the noise disappears, like it had been swallowed into a vacuum and the only sound is the buzzing in my head. “Wait…,” I struggle to get the power of speech back. “That can’t be right. My husband’s had a vasectomy.”

“I’ve seen it happen before. You two didn’t follow the doctor’s orders and use condoms until they could test and make sure it’d worked.”

“I’m sorry, nurse…”

“Butler. Betty Butler.”

“Nurse Butler, my husband had a vasectomy three years ago.”

The silence on the other end of the line isn’t just a hesitation. No, it’s more like a cavern of deep contemplation. “Oh…”

“Listen, there has to be some kind of mistake. I know I haven’t been feeling quite right, but I’m not pregnant.” I don’t know if I’m trying to convince her or me.

4 Secret Agent (redacted)

3 Secret Agent

GENRE: Adult Contemporary Fiction

It was a whisperthing, that’s all. An echovirus contaminating the metal and fiberglass tube that I was trapped inside. I glanced around. No one else seemed to hear, so I prayed for the sound to stop. I even stopped breathing. But the thumping of my heartbeat became the betrayer. The whisperthing continued, like a fistful of flesh-eating worms. “Apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, now does it, girl?”

“Not far enough,” I replied, white-knuckling the armrest confining me.

“Two peas in a pod, I swear. You’re just like me and you know it.”

“I’m not doing this with you,” I hissed, tiny bits of spittle tickling the insipid air. “Not here. Not now.”

“Shush. Need I remind you about my first runaway fiasco? It was Pearl Harbor’s eve, doll. I was only twelve. Ah, but you? Sneaking up on thirty-six, slinky bug. Tall number, I’ll say.”

“Get lost,” I snapped, thwacking a plastic tumbler from the asylum of my tray table. But my anger did nothing to quell her. She maundered on, with a brutal epitaph-a-laugh deluxe.

“If I hadn’t had you, I might have done something with my life.”

“Go away,” I cried, glaring at the invisible onslaught. “Freakin’ leave me alone.” Then something touched me. I jerked.

“There, there, madam,” an Asian flight attendant calmly reassured, rearranging reality along with my pillow. “You’re dreaming. You’re talking in your sleep.” Damn it all to hell, I wasn’t sleep-talking. I was wide awake, and she darn well knew it.

2 Secret Agent

TITLE: The Fairytale Sisterhood
GENRE: Women’s Fiction

Kat wrapped the white robe around her and padded on bare feet back to the inner room. She fidgeted as she sat amongst the other white-robed beings who bestowed annoyingly serene half-smiles upon her. She ignored them.

She wondered what people found so therapeutic about this place. It was too early in the morning for this, and all the serenity was making her agitated. If someone started the whole ommm thing she might have to hit them.

Her two business partners, Leah and Olivia, had insisted she start taking care of herself. The first step, apparently, was to achieve inner calm.

‘You’re so edgy these days,’ said Olivia, who’d turned stress management into an art form.

Leah grinned. ‘Indeed, grasshopper. You must to learn to go with the ebb and flow of an ever-changing universe.’

Kat couldn’t bring herself to tell them she’d just started her period. But PMT wasn’t the problem. It was the sight of her own menstrual blood that brought an agonized scream to her throat – one she couldn’t release, especially not in the office toilet.

Once Kat would have laughed out loud at the streaks of blood, relieved she wasn’t pregnant. That day, a single tear had shattered on the tiles at her feet as she tried to clean herself up. There would be no celebrating this month, nothing to tell anyone – not that anyone would suspect that she wanted a baby. Kat knew what they’d all think. The career-focused, impregnable Kat wants a…what?

1 Secret Agent

GENRE: Adult Fiction

Except for the time Mrs. Haveamore was attacked by geese on the golf course nothing exciting had ever happened at Sugar Trees, until that Wednesday morning when a dead body was found in the pool.

Sugar Trees, a posh suburban community built on the barren outskirts of a teeming metropolis and named for its proliferation of sugar maples was isolated from the mainland by a bridge, a river and miles of highways with billboards hawking everything from diamonds to diuretics. Thus discovery of a bludgeoned body found in a pool never made the Times, the News, or the National Enquirer, but aside from Mrs. Haveamore’s fowl encounter it made headlines in the Sugar Trees Gazette with pictures of the freaked out lifeguard who found the body.

The victim, an itinerant Mexican gardener had recently been hired being cheap labor was scarce and he was the only one among the crew who spoke English. And the only one who had the dim luck to see something he shouldn’t have.

That fatal night the dim-witted peeping tom was behind the tool shed eagerly awaiting his blackmailed mark. A few feet away a lone swimmer was paddling unseen along the floor of the pool. Dorian Oberon never heard the crash of metal crunch against the gardener’s spongy flesh nor his smothered cries as life ebbed from his battered body. But through the rippling water she spied a shadowy figure dash along the length of the deck and stop, silently witnessing her treading the bottom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quelling the Confusion

Okay. I didn't post a "submissions are now closed" at noon today because I wanted the good news post to stay at the top of the blog...and I trusted you all to read the instructions that said, yanno, 24 hours.

Wrong call. Submissions are still trickling in. Please...submissions closed at noon EDT. Submission windows are ALWAYS 24 hours long...or less, if the slots fill up faster.

I'm sorry for the confusion.


Secret Agent Success, or the Story of Steph Bowe

Actually, Ms. Bowe's success has little to do with our Secret Agent contests. She's a talented author whose work speaks for itself.

But this is a story too succulent to let lie, too amazing not to display here for all to see. For the pairing of author Steph Bowe and agent Ginger Clark was accomplished here, during our September Secret Agent contest.

Steph's was entry #26. Though Ms. Clark didn't choose Steph as her winner, she did request a partial after Steph responded to Ms. Clark's generous offer to read the query of everyone for whom she'd left an "I would read more" comment. Partial led to full, and the rest is history.

Behind the scenes, published author Sara J. Henry mentored Steph, encouraging her to enter the contest after leading her into a successful query foray. She's as much a part of this story as the other players.

So here it is, in their own words. Enjoy! Celebrate! This is the stuff from which dreams are made.

AUTHORESS: Steph, of course I want to know more about you. When did you start writing seriously, what has helped you mature your craft at such a young age? Did you honestly dream you'd land an agent this year?

STEPH: I think my writing is at the stage it's at right now due to one thing: writing. I write a lot and often. I don't talk about writing or think about writing or read books about writing. I just write. I don't particularly enjoy thinking of myself as a writer, I just love the act of writing. I started writing seriously when I turned fourteen, though I've written my whole life (I wrote a post on my blog called A Complete History of my Writing Failure - that dates back to my novel-writing attempts as a seven-year-old).

I never planned to find an agent. It just happened that way. In the past, I tried submitting directly to Australian publishers. I'm kind of dumbfounded by how lucky I've been in landing an agent. At no point did I expect this to happen (seriously, even when I sent out queries. I was just hoping for a bit of feedback).

AUTHORESS: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with your mentor Sara? How did you connect, and how has she helped you?

STEPH: Sara discovered my blog a few months ago and I recently mentioned that I was looking for beta-readers for my YA novel. She'd been impressed in the past by a couple of posts I did, so she offered to critique my novel for me. She made a number of suggestions and I revised my manuscript, and she liked my novel so much, she also told me of a couple of US agents she knew who she thought I should query. It hadn't occurred to me to try and get an agent in the US before but I thought it wouldn't hurt, so I decided to send out some emails. Then a month later I'm here, which is completely astounding. Sara wrote a guest post on my blog, where she talks a bit about all this .

AUTHORESS: Sara, you've played an instrumental role in mentoring Steph. How did the two of you connect? What was it about Steph's writing that drew you in and made you want to work with her?

SARA: I happened across Steph's blog, and started following it because her writing was bright and funny and well informed. Her “Complete List of Writing Failures” told me a lot about where she was as a writer, and I liked “20 Things to Say” so much I reposted it on my blog.

And her novel grabbed me immediately, in a way few books do. The characters were strong and quirky, with rich histories and a vivid inner awareness. The manuscript wasn’t perfect, but her writing was so strong I had no doubt she could fix the parts that needed work.

When I emailed agent friends to introduce Steph, I said I've stumbled across an exceptionally talented young YA author and have just read her most recent manuscript. It had a few rough spots I suspect she's taken care of by now but was gripping and quirky, heartfelt and funny, with some brilliant writing - and is the best and cleanest manuscript I've seen from a writer.

And I added, If I were an agent, I’d sign her right now.

AUTHORESS: Why did you encourage Steph to enter the Secret Agent contest? What were your expectations?

SARA: I primarily thought More feedback, and that it couldn’t hurt to get another agent’s take – at that point we had just started contacting agents and had no idea they would leap at it as they did. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had won.

After the first agent offer, Steph asked if she should drop out of the contest – I told her to wait, adding the wonderfully apocryphal words What if the Secret Agent is someone phenomenal and wants to sign you?

AUTHORESS: Ginger, when you agreed to be a Secret Agent for September's contest, what were your expectations as far as what you might find?

GINGER: My expectations were pretty neutral. I would have been happy to find someone from it, but it wouldn’t have disappointed me if I had not. (This is how I view most writers conferences, too).

AUTHORESS: Steph's submission garnered an "I would keep reading" response, though you didn't choose it for your winner. What was it about Steph's writing that grabbed you?

GINGER: Interestingly, I had written down two entries as potential winners when I went through all the entries: 47 and 26 (I dug out my notebook to verify this). I didn’t want to have multiple winners because I am like that. For me, it’s either you win or you don’t, no co-winners, life is unfair, etc. etc. (I think I got some complaints in the comments on your website about that). Anyway, I think I responded initially to the voice of 47 because it felt lighter, more commercial, and perhaps easier to sell than entry 26. Then, I invited everyone whose work I had indicated I’d keep reading to submit to me. THANK GOD I did that.

AUTHORESS: Steph, I understand that you already had two offers on the table when you entered the Secret Agent contest. Why did you decide to enter the contest at that point? What factors led you to ultimately sign with Ms. Clark?

STEPH: I thought, well, it couldn't hurt (and Sara encouraged me to enter, too). Once the winner was announced, I felt relieved, since I didn't have a third agent to have to think about. But then Ginger Clark requested my partial, then the full and then she offered representation. And I died, several times over. I remain convinced that I unknowingly have some kind of long-distance hypnotism capabilities.

I spoke to Ginger on the phone, and I think what ultimately made me decide to sign with her was a combination of a few things - she seemed to really understand the novel, didn't want to pressure me into having to make writing my career right now (because I'm 15. I have boys to crush on and gossiping to do), and she was really nice, but also sounded like an excellent businesswoman.

AUTHORESS: Ginger, Steph's young age naturally is of interest to, erm, "older" aspiring authors. At what point of the submission process did you become aware of her age? How does agenting a minor affect the publication process (e.g. contracts, etc.)?

GINGER: I knew before I even started reading the book that she was 15, because when she sent me the first fifty pages she told me she had offers already from two agents. I clicked on the link at the bottom of her email to her website and discovered her age. It doesn’t really change the process, except that Steph cannot sign contracts until she’s 18. I would say that her being Australian changes the process more than her age. I’m going to send the book out in both the US and Australia to editors, when it’s ready. That’s a first for me, double submission here and “Down Under,” as they say.

AUTHORESS: It's important for agent and author to "click." Can you talk about the "click" you've experienced with Steph? Do you think this particular client relationship will move you into more of a mentoring role?

GINGER: It’s hard to click over international phone calls (what is it about the weirdness on them in terms of not being able to talk over one another? Oy), but I do think we clicked. I was pretty focused on making sure she knew my qualifications, and that I loved her book, and that I wanted her to still be able to be, primarily, a kid, even though we were both about to embark on an “adult” journey together. I don’t know if she was nervous—I was! I had to make a good impression.

I think Steph is going to have plenty of writer mentors, and I believe my main job is what I do for all my clients—find them the right editors, and get them fair deals, and sell their rights as much and as many places as I can. I’m her advocate, and my job is to make sure she is treated well. I have given her some edits on the book, but the actual editorially mentoring will come from her editor, and any other writers she works with.

AUTHORESS: Sara, Steph is clearly gifted beyond her years. For many (older) aspiring authors, reading the success story of a 15-year-old can be a bit...difficult. Is this something from which you've needed to shield Steph, or has it been less of a problem than anticipated?

SARA: Like a long-distance nagging extra parent, I email Steph probably completely unnecessary cautions and advice, including being wary of those suddenly buddying up to her. And she’s well aware some people will resent a 15-year-old being signed.

But Steph got signed because she wrote a wonderful novel. She built an engaging blog, worked hard on her manuscript (she said I think if I edit it again I’ll suffer a brain aneurysm), solicited beta readers, revised again, wrote a strong query letter, and jumped at the suggestion to contact agents. With or without my minor push, Steph would have been signed. She’s just that good - you can’t read her blog without seeing that.

Regardless of age, there’s always someone who will resent you for getting an agent or book deal. I wouldn’t have suggested approaching agents had I not thought Steph emotionally ready to handle this, and I think Ginger the perfect agent to shepherd her through it.

A few years back a friend’s son had a novel published and at his celebratory party another writer sidled up to me and said Don’t you hate him? But I didn’t. I was chagrined he had a novel out and I didn’t, but it was a turning point for me, one that inspired me to buckle down and do the work I needed to do.

I see writers as a big amorphous community: one person’s success doesn’t detract from another’s potential, but the support we give one another can make all the difference.

AUTHORESS: Ginger, Steph is embarking on a long and promising career. As her agent, what are your goals and dreams for her? What do you find most satisfying about having found her?

GINGER: I’d like to find her an editor who will treat her well, and help her hone her already deeply impressive skills. I have lots of dreams as to where we’d sell the book, and all those accompanying things, but I am superstitious and dare not commit them to print!

AUTHORESS: Okay, Steph--tell us about your book!

STEPH: It's a story about first love. There are garden gnomes and child prodigies. It's a funny sort of sad-happy. I'm being very cagey and secretive about it - I love having something to be secretive about! It's glorious - but I will be revealing more on my blog, Hey! Teenager of the Year ( in due time.

AUTHORESS: You have a long, promising future ahead of you. What do you see when you look ahead? What are your ultimate goals and dreams as a published author?

STEPH: All I'm hoping is that I can continue to write, and hopefully publish, well into the future. I want to write books that make teenagers feel like they're not as alone as they think. I'd like to affect people, even if it's in a teeny-tiny way. I am hopeful, but I don't want to jinx myself.

Warm thanks to the three of you for telling the story from your viewpoint. And to Steph: Best wishes for a long and successful writing career!

Do I hear some huzzahs?