Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What My Ninth Grade English Teacher Had to Say (About Me)

It was one of those out-of-nowhere, unexpected moments of affirmation from a source that didn't even dwell in my consciousness.

I don't often check my "message requests" (a.k.a. messages-from-people-you're-not-friends-with-and-whom-you-might-not-even-know).  A few weeks ago, I noticed a message sitting in there, so I clicked over.  It was from someone we'll call Brian Schumann, and it said the following:
I still remember the wonderful fairy tale you wrote in my English class! You still "hold the record"!
I tossed the name around in my head for a few seconds and realized it was my ninth grade English teacher.  I read his words again, amazed that he remembered me after too many years to disclose.  His class wasn't one that stuck out in my memory (let's blame my aging brain).  I remember him as a mild, kind-hearted teacher, and I remember that he was also the German teacher (I took Spanish).  And aside from remembering that I sat in the back of the classroom and once had a stomachache during class, there isn't a whole lot that floats to the top.

I wrote back:
Oh my goodness -- Mr. Schumann!! How kind of you to reach out. I don't even remember the "wonderful fairy tale" -- not even remotely! But do, please, refresh my memory. I'm actually a writer now, so your message has really warmed my heart.

His response:
Ha! I knew you would be! I asked the class to write a fairy tale that they would read to the class afterward. Most of them were cute and kind of clumsy, typical high school stuff. You were the shy, quiet girl at the back of the classroom. You meekly addressed the podium, two periods later, you were finally done. We were all mesmerized by your skill and imagination. It was Tolkienesque with poetry interspersed into it. This still holds the record for skill in high school writing in my entire career!
At this point, my heart was lodged in my throat.  These words:  "Ha! I knew you would be!"

He knew I would be?  He knew I would be! My ninth grade English teacher KNEW I'D BE A WRITER.  I'm fairly certain he never told me that (not that I'd remember), and it's not a teacher's job to tell his students what they're going to be, anyway.  But OH MY GOODNESS.  This man SAW THE WRITER IN ME when I was only 14.

His words could not possibly be more affirming.


Funny, because I didn't know.  Creative writing was always my favorite schoolish thing (school in general wasn't exciting), but I was primarily a musician and an actress, ultimately choosing to major in music education.  In short, I lost my path.

Don't get me wrong--I'm supremely grateful for my music degree, and am happily singing with a symphony chorus and still playing my piano, so it's all good.  But MR. SCHUMANN KNEW I'D BE A WRITER.

Imagine that.

"We were all mesmerized by your skill and imagination."

Mesmerized?  I MESMERIZED you?

"It was Tolkienesque with poetry interspersed into it."

Well, the poetry part doesn't surprise me--I wrote my first poem when I was six.  But TOLKIENESQUE?  I can't even.

And here's the thing.  Had I known who Tolkien was when I was 14 (I did not, but the story of the literary cesspool in which I grew up is one for another time), my head would have become rather inflated at this sort of praise.  I'm profoundly grateful that he saved these words for NOW, all these years later, WHEN THEY HAVE TOUCHED ME SO DEEPLY THAT I DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT WORDS.

NOW is when I needed them.  NOW, when I am in the midst of what is truly the most labor-intensive and verge-of-despair revision I've ever undertaken.  (It's even harder than the infamous we-want-you-to-change-the-sex-of-this-main-character revision from a few years ago.)  NOW, because I'm doing work that an editor wants to see, and I am feeling the WEIGHT of this work, and I needed Mr. Schumann's memory of a socially awkward ninth-grader who blew him away with her fumbling fantasy.

Of course I thanked him for the memory and went on to share a bit about my writing journey.  Then I said:
Thanks so much for reminding me that the writer in me has been there for such a long time, and that it really is what I'm supposed to be doing. And thank you for being such an engaged, thoughtful teacher. I'm so honored to remain in your memory after so many years!
His reply:
Wow! Very cool! Hang in there, it'll happen. Thanks so much for getting back!
All these years later, he is speaking into my life the encouragement of a teacher who cares.  "Hang in there, it'll happen."

I'm hanging in there, Mr. Schumann.  Your words of affirmation have fueled me beyond what I thought my tank could hold.  You found me on Facebook and remembered a ninth-grader who loved to tell stories--and apparently told them well.  And then you reminded me that I AM STILL A GIRL WHO LOVES TO TELL STORIES.

No matter how hard it gets, no matter the heartbreaks along the way--I AM AND ALWAYS WILL BE A GIRL WHO LOVES TO TELL STORIES.

This is what it's about, my friends--remembering that, in the end, we all love to tell stories.  For whatever reason, the telling ignites us, sustains us, infuses us with a deep sense of purpose and joy.  We were all of us meant to be storytellers, in one way or another.  May you find YOUR PATH and YOUR PURPOSE for the stories in your heart.

And may your very own Mr. Schumann appear when you need him the most!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

First Kiss: Critique Guidelines


Full critique guidelines are below, but here's the focus of this week's critique:  DOES THE KISS WORK FOR YOU?  Does it leave you feeling a little breathless, or is it awkward?  Are there too many details, or not enough?  Do you feel the chemistry, even though you've been dropped into the middle of a novel you know nothing about?  (If you do, then I guess that's one successful kiss!)

(Note: Quite a few participants neglected to include a lead-in.  Folks...please follow directions! The lead-in makes a big difference in helping your readers feel settled in the scene, so they can do a better job critiquing with context.)

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

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

First Kiss #13

TITLE: Warmaker
GENRE: Adult Fantasy

Jennica (an assassin) isn't entirely sure she can trust Wesley (a king), but she's not above leading him on if it means getting what she wants. Wesley, on the other hand is sincere in both his attempt to help her and in his attraction to her.  

Her attention shifted back to Wesley. He watched her patiently, waiting for her to direct the course of their conversation. Slowly, his final words solidified. She had pushed them aside, intent on finding malice where there was none. Shaking off the lingering tendrils of the past, Jennica allowed the possibility that had been haunting her to take root.

His quiet fortitude was what she needed. He was willing to help her. Dropping her hand to her side, Jennica slowly advanced toward him. Halting close to Wesley, her heart reverberated in her chest. She reached forward, her fingertips grazing his cheek, mirroring what he had attempted to do the other day. His eyes widened but he remained still.

Edging closer, Jennica leaned forward. “Thank you,” she whispered, brushing a kiss against his cheek. Blocking out the pounding of her heart, she’d barely started to turn when Wesley caught her hand and pulled her back to him, his fingers gently clasping hers. Only a hand's breadth apart, she found herself staring into his hazel eyes.

“You’re welcome.” He smiled. Lifting her hand, he pressed a chaste kiss to her fingers,  his eyes never leaving hers.

Her breath hitched at the courtly gesture and heat burned across her skin, settling in her stomach. Straightening her shoulders, she pulled her fingers from his and took a step backward, fear and longing coursing through her. This was her game to play, not his, and she wasn’t ready to relinquish control.

First Kiss #12

TITLE: Accidentally Cursed
GENRE: YA Fairytale retelling

The MC is wearing cursed shoes that will not come off and her love interest is attempting to "distract" her to see if that will help:

“We have to get your mind focused elsewhere.” He glanced around the rooftop. “While you’re distracted, I’ll slip off the shoes.”

“Okay,” I agreed, willing to try anything.

He scooted off the crate onto to the rooftop and had me sit facing him. “Now close your eyes.”

I did. “What do I focus on?”

“This.” His voice was close. So close. I felt him cup my cheek, and my stomach went fuzzy, a ribbon of warmth unspooling slowly inside me. His breath warmed my mouth a moment before his lips followed. Every part of me glowed. He pulled back slightly, and my eyes fluttered open.

“Is this okay?” He asked, his mouth still hovering near mine.

“Better than okay,” I grinned, tilting my head for more.

He smiled. “Close your eyes.” He pressed his smile to my lips. He tasted sweet, like licorice. With his arms wrapped around me, the closeness of his body stirred every fiber of my being to life. My fingers tangling in his hair felt like it was our hearts tangled up together. And when his hands traveled my spine to the small of my back and inched me closer, his heart was right there, pressed flat against mine, pulsing and strong and eclipsing everything but the sparkling connection between us.

His hand gliding down to my ankle was barely a blip on my awareness. He eased off first one shoe then the other.

First Kiss #11

TITLE: The Shoemaker's Daughter
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Connor and Princess Gianna are friends. When Gianna smashes a magic mirror to break the spell it holds on her mother, she falls into an enchanted endless slumber.  The queen believes Connor is Gianna’s true love because she saw magic when Gianna danced with Connor to save his life.

“I’m not Gianna’s true love.”  Connor protested.

“I’ve seen you dance with her.”  Cassiopeia insisted.   “You are the one who must kiss her.”

Connor followed like a cat being drug toward water, moving forward but with the entire body in reverse.  He sat on the edge of the bed, putting his hands on either side of Gianna.  Maybe first kisses didn’t count if the girl wasn’t paying attention.

Cassiopeia cleared her throat.

He had to do this if it would help Gianna.  He couldn’t think of Lyra now.  He took a large breath, held it and leaned over putting his lips on Gianna’s.  Then he sat up and looked at her face.

“That was completely insufficient.”  Groused the queen.

Connor stared in dismay.  He hadn’t expected a critique. “This is something I don’t have much experience with.”

“Nonsense.”  She responded testily.  “It’s natural.  Quit fooling around.  I’m desperately worried.”

He licked his lips again.  He felt queasy and wondered if he was going to throw up.  Maybe barfing on Gianna would get him out of kissing her.  Maybe it would wake her up.

“Just relax.  Lean in and close your eyes.”  Coached the queen who had sidled up next to him.

The door was flung open.  Prince Denis walked in.  “What are you doing to that boy?”  He stormed.  “You and your wicked fairy godmother rubbish.  Gianna is probably loaded with contagious germs and you’ve got him smearing his lips on her.  He’ll be sick.”

I already am, thought Connor.

First Kiss #10

TITLE: The Serenity File
GENRE: Adult Urban fantasy

Note: Michael is an empath who just rescued Serenity from a bad date

Michael stepped farther into the apartment, pulling Serenity with him, his arm around her waist, clearing a path to the door. Her emotions were a mixture of annoyance, amusement, a bit of relief, and something she was actively suppressing. Michael absently ran his finger down her arm and felt a wave of desire wash over him, through him. He kept his face neutral as the guy--Roy--walked past them and out the door. Serenity pushed the door closed behind him and sighed. Michael turned to face her, lifted her up, pressed her against the wall and kissed her long and slow. She kissed him back, brushing her tongue against his lips demanding more. He held nothing back from the kiss, giving her everything she asked for. Her emotions mixed with his, encouraging him to go on, denying him nothing. One arm wrapped around her, he ran his other hand down her arm, along her hip and across her thigh. Silk. The dress is silk. He broke the kiss, breathless. Oh God help me.

First Kiss #9

TITLE: That Which Confines Us
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Devin stares at me intensely, with an expression I can’t read. He shifts beside me on the bench and his thigh brushes against mine, sending a tingling sensation coursing through me.
Jill (who’s an expert with this stuff) told me you can tell a guy is going to make a move when he looks at you for a long time and lifts his eyebrows, like he has a question.
There it is. A slight raise of his eyebrows.
 “Nomi,” he says, in a raspy voice. “You know I’m into you, don’t you?”
I tug at a thread hanging from my cut-off shorts. “Then why do you always seem so mad?”
He grabs my hand and pulls it into his lap. His jeans are damp with sweat. “It’s hard to see you with Tim.” He turns toward me and grips my chin. “Because I like you.”
He arches forward until our faces are inches apart, daring me to give in. I want to say, “What about Lydia?” but the words won’t come out. My body won’t let them. I don’t know if it’s the vodka or the fact that I’ve always been itching for this to happen—my mouth feels like it’s being pulled towards his. I kiss him. He moans and presses his lips hard against mine. I lean into him and my entire body relaxes. Shock waves shoot through me and everything inside of me feels like it’s waking up.  

It’s going to kill me when he pulls away.

First Kiss #8

TITLE: Seeking Sara Sterling
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Sara's long time boyfriend just broke up for her (a week before high school graduation) and now she's reckless and on the rebound, going after her hot co-worker, Alex.

Almost as if in slow motion, he turned, and his dark eyes seared into hers.

   Her arm tingled as she reached out to him. To her surprise, he took her hand and let her pull him into the women’s restroom. She locked the door again, her heart racing a million miles an hour.

    His face read mixture of seduction and surprise. “What?” he simply asked, one side of his mouth twisting up every so slightly.

    Sara wasn’t in the mood to talk though. It was now or never. She pressed her palms against his chest, pushing him up against the door. His eyes widened and then he smiled. That beautiful, maddening smile. God, she hated him for making her do this. But she was like a train running full steam down a mountain. There was no way to stop now.

    “Shut up,” she said, and smashed her lips against his. He must have known it was coming because he kissed her back, like this had been his idea instead of hers.

    Surprisingly, Sara’s heart rate slowed, but now her brain was going haywire. Colors and lights flashed behind her closed eyelids. She willed herself to focus and found one thing stood out above everything else. The taste of his lips. God, he tasted good. Like warm cinnamon and honey. The flavor seeped into her own mouth and spread throughout her body, making her tingle in places she never knew she could. She pressed harder against him, letting her hands slide around the back of his neck.

First Kiss #7

TITLE: Untitled
GENRE: YA Historical Fiction

Lead-in: Basketball court; North Carolina; August, 1970's. It's the night before 15 year-old Beryl goes back home to Boston. Perry is a 16 year-old boy she's known most of her life and sees each summer. Maureen is her best friend in Boston.

Perry isn’t my type. He’s more like a brother. Or am I just nervous? I don’t know what my type is. If I’m not attracted to him, there must be some reason. He’s tall, good-looking, super sweet and eyelashes that last a mile. He doesn’t smell. So what’s my problem? I don’t know any black and white couples. Is that it? Sweat drips down the back of my knees. I try to scoot back an inch.
“Beryl?” he asks and rolls back toward me. He fixes his dark brown eyes on mine. The tree frogs are starting their evening chirping. The sky is almost dark. Behind his head I see that a few stars have popped up in the sky. He lets go of the basketball and leans in and kisses me softly. His lips are dry and taste salty.

“Do you want to go…somewhere?” He licks his lips.

I wipe the backs of my knees and dry my hands on my shorts. My first kiss that wasn’t during Spin the Bottle--wasn’t I supposed to feel something? Could I learn to like him? Maureen’s older sister once asked what I thought about being a nun. Maybe she could see something I didn’t.
Perry reaches for my hand. The veins snake between the muscles in his arms. But instead of wanting those arms wrapped around me, I think how jealous I am that he gets to have those muscles for basketball. I shake my head. What’s wrong with me?

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I remind him.

First Kiss #6

TITLE: Enchanter's Dawn
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy

[William is heir to an English earldom, Eleanor is a French noble in exile. She has been learning English from him in secret. They first met at a Twelfth Night party. Story takes place in 1459.]

The gentle roar of the rain outside the barn made him feel as if he and she were alone in the world. Slowly, he leaned toward her. She turned her dark eyes up to his. In the gray, rain-filtered light, he noted every detail of her face, from her rosy lips to her fine eyebrows.

She said softly, “What did you say on Epiphany when you stood as king? You looked at me when you spoke, yet I could not understand you.”

William remembered how she looked that night, wearing a paper crown and a cloak decked with juniper and mistletoe. How he had longed for her then, and now he sat beside her, hand in hand. “I said, I hope that all of our wishes for this year come true.”

“And has your wish come true yet?” she asked.

“It is about to,” he whispered as he leaned in and kissed her. He had only meant to steal a brief kiss, but when her hand slid across his cheek and ran through his hair, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him. Hungry as they were for each other, their lips parted as a desperate longing deepened their kiss.

“William!” Gregory’s booming voice seemed to shake the world. William jumped, his dream suddenly plunging into nightmare. His father seized him by the collar and yanked him to his feet.

First Kiss #5

TITLE: Hunting Legends
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy

Midnight-ish in the forest: Raid and Azrielle have just escaped a pack of arachne (pony-sized spiders) that attacked the school. Raid has no idea he is falling for the enemy sent undercover to sabotage his team of monster hunters. Azrielle's under orders to use his affections against him, except she's struggling to let him get close because her feelings for him aren't pretend anymore.

“Are you okay?” I ask, voice hushed. The rush of adrenaline pumps through my veins, my pulse racing. She nods, still holding onto the AR-15. I lift the gun out of her grasp, and switch the safety on before leaning it against the motorcycle.

Her braid is messy, chunks of hair pulling loose. The urge to tunnel my fingers through her hair overwhelms me. Her legs straddle me overtop my own, my hands resting on her bare thighs near the edge of her skirt. The smooth skin is hot beneath my palms. I should remove my hands, but they’re locked in place, holding onto her with a vice grip.

Her lips part and all I can think about is pressing my mouth to hers. Want and need meld into a consuming desire. She shrugs out of the jacket and says something but I don’t hear a word.

“May I kiss you?” My voice is low and husky, though I don’t intend it. I don’t know why I asked.

The answer I expect is no and I need to respect that for whatever reason, she won’t give into the magnetic pull between us.

“Yes,” she says breathless.

A shock wave rolls through me, rendering me useless for several seconds. Then my arm locks around her back, pulling her into me.

I tilt my head and lower my lips to hers.

She’s warm like sunlight and kissing her is like tasting the first day of summer. Her lithe body leans into me harder and my blood ignites, veins laced with fire, heat coiling in my stomach. I release her leg to cup her face, fingertips stroking her soft hair. She sighs into me, scattering a buzz of euphoria through every nerve in my body.

I could soak in this moment with her forever.

First Kiss #4

GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

I remove his cap, and he lets me. I run my fingers through his hair–silky, threatening. I'm not thinking, I'm reacting. I've lost control.

“Are you like your siblings?” I ask him, staring at his parted lips. “Dangerous?”

Sebastian makes a humming noise, and he finally says, “I wish I could say no.”

“Could you hurt me?”

“I could.”

“The same way that Lucas could? Or any human being?”

He shakes his head, and I cringe, but ask the one question I fear most: “But would you?”

His lips find mine. With fervor, with longing, they ripple along my mouth like undulating waves, the kinds I used to crave.

My breath catches.

He's melting into me, marking me with remnants of lemons and pine needles, and I'm trying to absorb him. His tongue snakes around mine. Like a snare, it entraps me in all his pieces, and I wrap my arms around his waist, squeezing. As his arms glide up my neck, I'm losing myself, losing control–when a flash of glowing eyes takes me hostage.

I yelp away from him, freezing. The image jolts me like lightening, electrifying my senses.

“What is it?” Bass breathes, his hair tousled and ragged.

I look into his ashen eyes, searching, searching–but finding nothing. There's no glow that scorches my skin like coals, no savagery to cut me like barren teeth. I’m imprisoned in a web of dismay and desire.

First Kiss #3

TITLE: Christmastime in the City
GENRE: Adult Romance

“That looks and smells amazing, but I can’t try it or do anything until I can say something.”

“Okay." Lena put the plate down and turned away from her computer to face Ryan fully. Her beautiful dark eyes looked directly at him, and the cut of her dress hinted at what he’d noticed this morning. But he couldn’t let himself be distracted.

“The past few days have been the most incredible of my life, and it’s all because of you. You have been – no, you are so amazing. I’ve never met anyone like you, and I’d be kicking myself the whole way home if I left without doing this.” He moved closer, wrapped a hand in her streaked hair, and kissed her.

Lena gasped, but the sound quickly fell away in the overwhelming rushes of touch and taste. Her hair felt silken underneath his fingers, and that floral scent was all around him now, nearly intoxicating him. Her lips were as soft as they looked, but didn’t taste like the berries they resembled. Instead he got a hint of coffee, honey and something creamy. And for one shining moment, her lips moved under his and she seemed to move closer, pressing her full chest into the top of his flat adbomen. His heart leaped, and the flutters below his stomach turned to jolts. Heat exploded through his body, and he could practically see a bright light behind his closed eyes.

First Kiss #2

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

1882, Arizona Territory. The setting is the wedding supper for Adam Donovan and Jesse Travers. Annie has just realized that the man she's loved all her life, Adam's twin brother Brian, is deeply in love with his twin's wife. The Donovans' younger brother Daniel attempts to comfort her.

He led her down the slope into the orchard, where benches were arranged among the trees. He sat beside her and did not let go of her hand.


“It's hopeless. I know. I guess I've known all along.” Annie's voice trailed off in a whisper. She knew now that Brian wouldn't love her, and there was nothing that would change his heart.

Suppressing a sigh, she stood to go, but Daniel stepped in front of her. “Annie, there is a man who loves you.”


“Yes. Daniel.”

She listened in growing confusion as he told her of his love. Listened to the voice a childhood accident made sound like emery on slate, listened for the first time to the Irish lilt twining around the southern drawl. And heard a music she'd never heard before.

Aroon, I love you.” He raised her face to his and kissed her with a tender passion she'd never dreamed him capable of. “Please give me a chance.”

Her tears fell, splashing on his hands. She heard him groan as he pulled her into his arms. The muscles rippled under his soft buckskin shirt. One part of her marveled at the way her head fit into the hollow between his shoulder and throat; another wondered at the tenderness of the hand that cradled her head, of the strong fingers that lost themselves in her long fine hair. A third part of her protested her fickleness―she'd always wanted Brian. What was she doing now in his brother's arms?

First Kiss #1

TITLE: In This Fateful Hour
GENRE: YA Supernatural

17 yr. old Marielle is mentally and emotionally exhausted after the recent death of her parents and the disappearance of two of her classmates. She has been having strangely realistic dreams about the missing girls, her parents' deaths, and her love interest, Lucca. Gretchen, one of the missing girls and Marielle's best friend, suggested that Marielle has a guardian angel. Marielle thinks it might be Lucca.

   “Stay,” I whispered.

    The bed sank under his weight. I pillowed my head on his chest and let his warmth soak into me as I fell into a deeper sleep.

    I lay in the snow in Lucca’s arms, under a great white sycamore. He brushed his lips against my hair, my forehead, my eyes. He moved to my jawline, then my neck, sending warm shivers through me that rested in the pit of my stomach.

    My lips found his. They moved together, then apart. His warm breath filled me. My body trembled under his hands as they traced lines down my back.

    “Is this real?” I asked between kisses.

    “It’s your dream. It can be as real as you want it to be.”

    Lucca pressed himself against me, his lips hard and urgent as they moved down my neck and back to my lips. My fingers found his hair, followed the contours of his face. Where our bodies touched, his pulse throbbed against me. I pushed away, my breath heavy.

    “I want this, but not in a dream.”

    His eyes were intense and sad before he looked away. He wrapped his arms around me, enfolding me in his warmth.

    “If you ever doubt my feelings for you, remember this night.”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Call For Submissions: FIRST KISS

We haven't done smoochies in a long time, so let's have at it!

A first kiss scene needs a delicate balance all its own.  Have you accomplished it?  Let your peers help you find out!

On FRIDAY, MAY 26 (tomorrow), submissions will open for a First Kiss critique round.

*Submissions will open at NOON EDT and will close at midnight.
*Your submission should consist of a BRIEF LEAD-IN (give us a setting for the scene) and an up-to 250-word excerpt that includes your characters' FIRST KISS.
*All categories (MG, YA, NA, Adult) will be accepted.
*NO EROTICA.  My intention is always to keep this site PG-13, in honor of my younger readers.
*Submit your entry HERE.
*The bot will choose 25 entries after the submission window closes.  The entries will post on the blog on TUESDAY, MAY 30 for public critique.

Questions?  Ask below!  Looking forward to reading your kisses. :)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Whispering Into the Void


It finally happened.  So much life was unfolding in my lap that something had to seriously give.  And "something" apparently equals "blog".

All is well.  I was simply...doing life.

I'm fresh off a glorious 2-week visit with my parents, who hadn't traveled to see us in almost 2 years. To say that our time together was blessed is an understatement.  They timed their visit to coincide with a ridiculous amount of family gatherings and celebrations, as well as a performance by our city's symphony orchestra in which Mr. A and I sang with the chorus.

(I won't even go into how incredible it was to look across the hall and into the balcony, and to see my parents sitting there.  Yes, my dad really did stand up and wave his arms.  He has always been my biggest fan.)

At any rate, their visit also happened just as I was set to dig into a round of post-submission revisions on my current manuscript.  And despite my initial intention to get some writing in whenever I could, it proved impossible.

Which is fine.  I dug in again yesterday, and this afternoon is slated for all things writerly.

But I've got to admit something.

After so many years of writing--so many years of being agented without a sale--I found that I didn't miss it at all during the past couple of weeks.  And now that I'm jumping in again (as always!), I find I'm simply doing it because IT'S WHAT I DO.

I'm not particularly excited.

I'm not particularly optimistic.

I'm not particularly feeling my groove.

Honestly?  Doing this because "it's what I do" is okay.  I really believe this.  No emotions, no dreams, no effort to stay connected to the YA writing world the way I used to.  Just doing my work, and doing it to the best of my ability.  Working hard.  Carefully considering editorial notes.  Making my story into the best possible thing it can be.

So many of you have stayed with me throughout my journey, from wherever your point of entry may have been.  I could list dozens of names (mostly nicknames!) that really mean something to me when I see them in a comment box or on Twitter or Facebook or in my inbox.  If I tried to create that list, I'd fall short, because I'd inadvertently leave people out.  So I'm not going to try.

But to all of you -- THANK YOU!

I'm here.  I'm writing.  I've got THE MOST AMAZING AND TALENTED AGENT A GAL COULD HOPE FOR.  I've also got a husband who's behind me 100 percent, a gaggle of beta readers and critique partners who are truly life-givers, and a brain that just doesn't want to stop telling stories.  (I sprouted a brand new story idea just yesterday--at the worst possible time, naturally.)

I've also got this blog thing, and I'm working on some summer offerings for you.  So start polishing your first pages!  I promise to get things rolling again soon.

Also?  I'd love for you to say hello today.  Maybe even let me know where you are in your own journey, so I can come up alongside you the way you've come up alongside me.

Muchos abrazos!  And more to come.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Aaaaaand Our Winners!

Here are Nicole's picks:

Honorable Mentions: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and first 15 pages

Entry # 35 - Frigid
Entry # 41 - Vailen House and the Maraydon Seal
Entry # 44 - This Isn’t Shakespeare

Runners-up: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and first 25 pages

Entry #9 - In Her Own Skin
Entry #23 - A Beastly Beauty
Entry #40 - Divine Architects

Grand Prize: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and full manuscript

Entry # 1 - Saving Emmaline
Entry # 16 - Hidden Agenda

Congratulations!  Winners, please email me at facelesswords(at) for specific submission instructions.

GREAT round, everyone!

Secret Agent Unveiled: Nicole Payne

Huge amounts of thanks and applause to our lovely and gracious Secret Agent, Nicole Payne of Golden Wheat Literary!  

In case you missed it, we had an "imposter" Secret Agent leaving feedback this time, and Nicole was right on it, pointing out each time when the feedback was not actually from her.  It's difficult for me to keep up with the amount of comments that come through during contests like this, so I'm especially grateful that Nicole took the time to sort this out for me.

(Incidentally, I don't think our imposter had any malicious intent.  I'm just a little baffled as to why someone else decided to take the Secret Agent moniker--it's never happened before!)

Nicole's bio:

Nicole Payne is a new literary agent at Golden Wheat Literary. She has a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in Forensic Genetics. Maybe that’s why she now uses her background to investigate for new books. It must be in her DNA.

What she's looking for:

She’s particularly interested in YA, NA, and Adult in Speculative Fiction, Romance, Romantic Comedy, Mysteries, Contemporary, Suspense, and Thriller. However, if the writing and story are amazing, she’s quick to snatch up exceptions, so if you think you’re a good fit, send her a query and see if you can convince her likewise.

Thanks again, Nicole!  Winners forthcoming.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday Fricassee

I've gotta say -- you've ROCKED the critique for this month's Secret Agent Contest!  It's so encouraging to watch my inbox continually refill with all your comments.  WELL DONE.

If you've been meaning to leave feedback but haven't had time yet--no worries!  You can continue to leave your comments throughout the weekend.  I'll unveil our Secret Agent and announce the winners on Monday.

For several years, I ran 10 of these contests a year, every month except June and December.  It got to be a little much--I needed to feel less pulled away from my writing, for one thing, and for another--well, I think I was feeling a bit of blog burnout!

Truth is, when I started this blog (9 years ago this month!), there wasn't much out there in the way of online contests for writers.  I forged new ground, and people were excited!  After a while, though, more and more other contests popped up--some fantastic, some not so much--and it felt like such a contest glut that I wasn't sure I wanted to keep swimming in the overcrowded pool.  Scheduling became an ever-increasing issue, as it seemed there was always something else going on whenever I scheduled something of my own.  I didn't have the time or the wherewithal to try to keep track of everything going on out there, just to keep from double scheduling something.

I mean, that sort of thing can be exhausting.  (But I did just use the word wherewithal in a sentence, which is kinda cool.)

So I cut back, and it felt great.  Then I cut back even more, and I find that I've lowered my "writing stress" (because, yes, blogging is writing).  Still, I sometimes wistfully look at the list of past Secret Agents on my sidebar, and I feel like a slacker.  I've got a gang of over 60 success story authors who landed their agents through one of my contests, and that's an awesome feeling!  I want to see more of that; I want to add new names to our Success Story Facebook Group.

But.  I've got to stay with this truncated version of the contest schedule.  And I'm grateful that this week's Secret Agent Contest generated so much energy and participation.  I have always loved the community that sprang up around this blog almost from its inception.  KEEP BEING YOUR WONDERFUL SELVES.

I've still got a few Secret Agent Contests up my sleeve.  And of course I'll keep hosting the in-house critiques.  But the glory days of monthly Secret Agents surrounded by nearly-incessant crit sessions are over.

HAVING SAID THAT: I'm still, as always, interested in hearing what you'd love to see here in the upcoming months.  Is there a particular critique round we haven't done in a while that you'd love to throw your work into?  Is there something we've never done that you think I should consider?  Let me know your thoughts in the comment box!  This blog is for you, after all.

Thanks for reading...thanks for being here.  Some of you are oh-my-goodness-long-timers.  I so appreciate you.

And now I'm going to wrap this up and go have coffee with my sister, who now lives here.  We haven't lived in the same state since I graduated from college, which was ages ago.  I'm still pinching myself that she's actually here!

How's that for a happy, feel-good sendoff?  :)  Blessings on your weekend, my friends--and remember to shoot me your thoughts and ideas!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

For Writers: My Premiere Critique

It's been a while since I've posted information about the critiques I offer.  In addition to my normal, 30-page critique for $95, I occasionally open up a slot for a Premiere Critique, as time permits.


Premiere Critique:

  • detailed line edit of your first 75 pages
  • editorial letter
  • guaranteed 1-week turnaround
  • $260 payable in 2 installments (via Paypal)
  • no first drafts 
  • all genres except erotica/erotic romance
  • all categories (MG, YA, NA, Adult)
  • specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and YA
These slots are always filled on a first come, first served basis.  If you are interested in the current opening, please email me at authoress.edits(at)

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

It's actually been quite a while since we've had a Secret Agent Contest!  We've picked up a lot of new readers lately (*waves to new readers*), so here's a quick overview:

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

  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

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

April Secret Agent #50

TITLE: The Wizard
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

I stared at Heath’s face hovering above me as I lay there on the gentle slope of my roof. The almost black night sky behind his head made him look as if he was floating in space. I let my fingers run across his cheek. I was so warm my skin was almost sweaty. My cotton shorts bared my legs to the air outside, and a quick, cooler breeze swept over us. I shivered, but still felt hot to the touch.
“Cold?” Heath asked me, sliding one hand across the skin on my waist under my shirt. The other reached up, and his fingers were in my hair. His legs between mine. I couldn’t answer him. The sound of my own voice would make things too real.

Heath and I were friends in name, but not in action. Because when he kissed me I forgot we didn’t belong together. Not in that lovey way. We meant not to. But we sometimes collapsed together into that brain-numbness of lips on lips and body pressed to body. Lately, I found myself waiting for the next time.

A loud screech cut through the air.

I froze.

The strange noise filled all the dark silence, a shrieking wave of sound slapping against my house.

Heath pushed up onto his knees. I sat up, craning my head.

“What was that?”

April Secret Agent #49

GENRE: Adult Contemporary

An ocean wave was coming to devour the Isle of Man.

Eoin Wade waited on the Tower of Refuge ramparts. The stout, neatly bricked fortress glowed red and green under artificial spotlights. It sat on a patch of stone and sand four hundred yards from the shoreline of Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital city. On the horizon, the jagged outline of the English coast peeked through the mist above the approaching wave. Every breath brought the tide a meter closer. Sixty more breaths to go, if Eoin was lucky.

At Eoin’s back stood a line of three-storey Victorian guesthouses. Vacancy signs creaked on their hinges. Pigeons shuddered under flake-painted eaves. The pre-dawn sky was salmon flesh in colour. There was still time until silver-haired shoppers and leather-clad motorcyclists filled the promenade behind him. Provided that the ocean didn’t fill it first.

Black hair trailed from Eoin’s oilskin hood. Salty air rushed through his trimmed beard, making his face itch. Heavy metal screeched from the earbuds hanging from his shirt collar. To think there was once a time, a long, yawning river of time, when he couldn’t stuff his head with Motorhead or Thin Lizzy. Was it from so distant an age, when letting music leak from little sponges into your ears would’ve been considered witchcraft? Of course, the centuries had flown by since Eoin’s longship first caressed these sands. Too many.

The most pointless thoughts stirred in Eoin’s head when he was afraid.

April Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Bits and Pieces
GENRE: YA Romance

My biggest failure is being born. My second is not mailing Mitchell Dobson’s birthday card. Two years ago, it was enough knowing that a guy with the collegiate world at his feet also felt crushed by doubt. No need to ruin a chance moment being a fangirl. He knew my photographs, said he liked them. Why not? His antics on the football field filled many of the frames. He seemed convinced that if I really loved photography, I should major in it in college.

Maybe. Until that day, I did love photography. For now, we tolerate each other because a sudden split would prompt questions I don’t want to answer, even with my best friend Zoe.

“You’re a real pro, Bits.” Zoe sits by my side in the afternoon shade of her screened-in porch, her laptop perched on her knees. “My parents will love these.” She scrolls through the images from her senior picture photo shoot. Even in black and white, her smile jumps right out of the image to wrap the viewer in a big hug. “You’ll get into CalArts for sure.”

“They’d have to give me major bucks. Waiving the application fee wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Your dad will find a job.” She throws an arm over my shoulder. The scent of her strawberry shampoo tickles my nose. “He just has to find the right one.”

Before we’re hungry and homeless, I hope. It would be too pathetic if Dad and I were evicted from our tiny garage apartment.

April Secret Agent #47

TITLE: A Complex Solution
GENRE: YA Romantic suspense

     With my hand poised over the knob, I stared at the door to room 104. My thudding heartbeat was the only sound in the silent hallway. Yesterday, I swore it was the last time. But here I was, late again. I just couldn’t make it here without a detour.

     I blew out a breath, pulled back on the doorknob and poked my head in.

     “Come in, Lexi,” said Mrs. Conti, a petite, stylishly dressed woman, who wore her dark hair in a bob. She had a soft, pleasant face and smiled as I closed the door.

     Eighteen pairs of eyes turned towards me as I took my seat in the back. I kept my head down, crossed my arms over my chest and sank low in my seat. Steadying my breath, I tried to imagine that the wave of whispers rolling through the room had nothing to do with me, the freak-girl who was late again. Could they see through me? See my scars? I wasn’t going to be friends with any of them, but I had to get through my time at this place. I’d made a promise and I had to keep my word.
    I sat with my head bowed for twenty agonizing minutes, counting the seconds to the bell.

    At the end of the period I jumped up, but before I could run out, Mrs. Conti appeared at my desk. “Tomorrow, can you be on time, Lexi?”

     I tugged my sleeves over my thumbs and winced. "Yeah."

April Secret Agent #46

TITLE: A Maiden Innings
GENRE: Adult Romance

Rose knew she shouldn’t have tweeted. What a big mistake! It was supposed to be a joke. Now they were including his lawyers? It was a senseless risk she’d taken. And she knew it the moment she had typed it and sent it into the Twitterverse.

Dressed in a formal suit, the only one she owned, the same one she wore to funerals, interviews, school dinners, she sat examining her nails, restlessly tapping her foot on the shiny mahogany floor. All she’d done was proved him wrong. He wasn’t generous, kind or any of the things he claimed.
The men in tailored suits came in and Rose knew from their pinched faces she was in trouble.
“Miss Cavendish, I’m sure you’re aware that we can bring a defamation suit against you for what you tweeted a week ago.”

Rose felt the sweat trickle down her back. “Look, it was done in jest. I didn’t mean to hurt him. Tell them,” she nudged the only lawyer, she knew, her friend and co-member of the catechist’s association at church. She couldn’t afford legal counsel. Damn it, she was only a teacher for heaven’s sake.
“What my client is trying to say Mr. Gleason is that no harm was meant to Mr. Anderson. There’s no question of defamation, it’s not that he’s got a stellar reputation to begin with,” her portly friend, said with her shrill voice.

April Secret Agent #45

GENRE: YA Dark Contemporary

The starry sky above weighs heavy as I skate along the roadside, dodging cars. This overpass has a magnetic force that draws me to it. Especially this time of year.

In seven days, I’ll trek to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them once more. It's a walk I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I’m only doing it because I think it'll bring me peace.

It hasn’t yet, and from where I stand tonight, peace is about as far away as Orion’s Belt.

In real life, the patch is a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry. Yet every year, my hope of that happening wanes like the moon, so tonight to take my mind off the dirt, the sky, and my parents, I’ve dragged my buddy Jase onto the overpass for a Friday night skate. Broken street lamps here mean we can hide beneath the stars, doing whatever we want.

“Guy, come on, dude, let’s go to the Skatey P instead,” Jase whines. "This place is a speedway death trap. The park's gotta be more fun, plus everyone'll be there."

“And it'll be so bright, we'll have to stare at everyone's zits.” I razz my buddy, skating a fine line between sarcasm and apathy.

April Secret Agent #44

GENRE: YA Romance

Our last night together we sit on the hood of my Taurus and gaze at the endless summer sky.  He won’t be back for three weeks. Maybe it wouldn’t seem so awful if we hadn’t spent every spare minute together since we made up in July. Or if he was allowed to be part of the new millennium and have a cell or a laptop.

“Make a wish,” I say when the first star of the night winks at us. I wish for him to have a great first week at college and turn my eyes to the pale, crescent moon.

Twenty-one days. Four hours away. 
I can’t think about that though. I can’t even imagine it. My body rises and falls as he breathes and I lose myself in the perfectness of being here in this moment, feeling his heat flood my back. A moment that tastes of forever and happily-ever-after.

Then I ruin it.

“How can you look at that sky and not believe in God?”

He’s twirling a strand of my long brown hair around his finger. “Stace…” There’s a tiny warning there. He won’t be dragged into that conversation again.

The reminder starts to crimp the edges of the perfectness.

Before the frown has time to fully form on my face, he kisses my shoulder, then slips his hands beneath my shirt to my bare stomach and the moment is all poetic again.

Then he ruins it by sliding his fingertips inside the waistband of my shorts.

April Secret Agent #43

GENRE: Adult Women's

Kynelle Harris was born, triggering anger simply because she existed.

New father Russ knew how his boss would react when he heard of the impending birth. Boss threw a paperweight at Russ and snapped, “I can make sure that brat never interferes with your work.” New mom Evie's boss said, “Well, I can always hope you’re just packing on fat.”

None of that mattered now.

A voice: “How did you get here without a car?”

Another voice: “Hitchhiked. It’s safe, now.”

­­­­Flowers appeared. Outfits and blankets and stuffed toys rose out of paper bags. The Parker grandparents rescheduled their flight another week. Child cousins arrived with uncles and aunts and Ky was passed around like a championship trophy.

Ky’s parents didn’t check for text messages from their bosses: they knew what they’d find. They could escape the cruel talk until they returned to their cubicles.

Evie appeared as one would expect: disheveled, short of energy, yet glowing.

Russ had the common male look of amazement, a hint of sheepishness at not helping more. This may be why men do what they do in the way of work; it's a hard-wired sense of nobility to build a better world with their labor, a best attempt to make up for the fact that they cannot give birth to a new human being. Families of disparate races and religions were more united in the name of Kynelle Rania Harris.

April Secret Agent #42

TITLE: Vision
GENRE: YA Thriller

Something slithers down the back of my neck. I swipe at it, expecting a mosquito, but pull back a wet hand. “Why is it so hard to breathe?” I wonder, but my eyelids are too heavy. Just as my lashes dust my cheeks, my waist buzzes, jolting me awake. I kick off the quilt that’s suddenly suffocating me and make myself roll over. Two AM. Ugh, I’m too tired for this. I unclip the insulin pump from my pajamas and look at the screen. Thirty-two. Uh oh. I press the graphing button. My blood sugar’s been falling for over an hour — why hadn’t I woken up sooner? I reach for the juice box on my night table. Empty. I fall back onto the bed and fight against my eyes — they want to close so badly. Nope, gotta get up. I strain to lift my leaden head from the pillow. Blood is pulsing at my temples and I feel the thud of each struggling heartbeat vibrating in my chest. The tip of my tongue is already tingling with a numbness that would slur my speech if there was anyone here to talk to.

I listen for footsteps running down the hall, but no one is coming. Right, I remember, I’d made my mom turn off the pump alerts on her phone last week on my birthday. It was my present to her, although she didn’t see it that way.

April Secret Agent #41

TITLE: Vailen House and the Maraydon Seal
GENRE: YA Contemporary, Adventure

Calden scribbled out Euler's Identity for the third time that morning. Even with a hundred students swarming around, searching anxiously for a seat in the high school auditorium, he kept with the equation and continued rearranging the variables:

e^πi + 1 = 0

The formula represented his family—at least his father said it did—with ‘π and ‘i’ denoting his two younger sisters, ‘1’ his father, Calden as the ‘e’, and his mother as the addition sign that held the family together. The identity was considered humanity’s most beautiful piece of math, and yet with the simple exclusion of the ‘1’, the entire equation fell apart. Calden thought up ways to balance it out, though without his father there, it seemed unlikely.

“Yo, anyone sitting here?” A familiar voice called from above. Calden looked up to see his friend Lorne, though in all honesty, they hadn’t said a word to each other all summer.

“Hmmm, can you at least say hi?” Lorne shifted Calden’s books off the adjacent chair and sat down.

“Simon, Carol, Mia—we all worried about you man. You get our calls?”

“I guess.” Calden kept at the equation, scratching out the ‘1’ several times over. Why’d the whole identity break down with one person gone! He drew lines and circles all over the page, burying his work in dark strokes of lead.

“Hey!” Lorne grabbed hold of his hand. “You okay man?” He leaned in and threw an arm over Calden. “Can we please talk about this after school?”

April Secret Agent #40

GENRE: YA Science Fiction

The first time I traveled through time, I overshot by three minutes.

Instead of the hum of the subways in New York and the 14:12 train to Brooklyn thundering by, laughter greeted me. When I finally managed to catch my breath, I forced my eyes open. I’d also apparently missed my target by four kilometres, landing slap bang in the middle of the bushes of Central Park where anyone could have noticed me pop out of thin air.

A stellar performance, if I did say so myself. The exam board would be thrilled.

I willed my legs to move before anyone became suspicious. The lingering lurch of Control’s simulator struggled to settle in my bones. The moment the world stopped spinning my head gave an almighty thud of protest. My Duty Sergeant hadn’t thought to mention ‘by the way Sara, when you travel through time you’ll get the world’s worst migraine’. She’d also missed out the part where my tongue went numb, and every atom in my body tried to find itself again.

This was not how I’d planned my first visit to the twentieth century.

Back in the days when I allowed myself to imagine good things, the city of New York held nothing but possibilities, Broadway shows and endless pretzels. I’d never thought of it as a map with a moving target, a test for me to prove myself worthy of joining an elite time traveling crew. So far, I was pretty sure I’d failed.

April Secret Agent #39

TITLE: Insignificant
GENRE: YA Speculative

The dust is by far the most interesting thing in this store.

An antique globe creaking in the corner and the crystal wind chimes swaying by the door can’t compare with the elegance of the motes. For a moment, I’m envious of their freedom, the way each speck is careless and ready to defy even the most fundamental laws of gravity while swirling in the sunbeams. But then there’s the tiniest drop of movement, a breath of air or the nearby steps of a body, and it’s too much for them to handle. They scatter, completely at the whim of their surroundings.
That’s why I’m fascinated by them. At first glance they’re defiant, but it turns out they’re just as powerless as the rest of us.

Footsteps thud against the hardwood floor. I turn as Trent snaps his pocket watch shut, the holographic interface sucking back inside the brass case. “The target should be out in eighty-five seconds.” He pauses next to a cabinet of fine china and looks at me as if I’m as fragile as one of the gold-trimmed plates. I can’t stand it. “You ready?”

His words settle in my ribcage, bringing with them a dull, aching pain. After years of assignments together, I can read Trent better than anyone, and his steady gaze tells me this question—the one that’s been lurking unsaid for weeks now—isn’t about the next few minutes. Once we achieve this final match, there’s no going back. My debt will finally be repaid.

April Secret Agent #38

TITLE: Freedom's Chains
GENRE: YA Speculative - Fantasy

Today is special. Today we get apple slices. It always gets kind of crazy around here on an apple slice day. Rule number one of this rare treat-of-a-day: once the fruit is placed in your hand, immediately shove it into your mouth and chew as quickly as possible. Rule number two on apple slice day: do not, for any reason, drop your fruit—if you want to keep all your fingers. I saw rule number two broken twice during my fifteen years of life, all of those years lived here inside Wormwood Tower. I plan to never, ever, break rule number two. Three months is a long time to wait for a chance at another apple slice and all their sweet and delicious goodness.

“Line up,” shouts the orange-uniformed guard, breaking my gaze from a tiny cockroach scurrying across the floor. “Hurry. Or else don’t plan on eating anything—even cabbage—until tomorrow morning. Or if that threat doesn’t work, I’ll kick you out into the wild, where you can expect to be dinner.” He repeatedly pokes his wooden club into every drab, gray linen-gowned child and adult, forcing us to scoot and scamper faster, just like the cockroach, while lining up in the usual order to accept our apple slice. I hate the orange guard. The green guard is much nicer.

We hurry to our positions in line with all the wee children first, those after progressing in age and last but not least, the caboose: Nan. Scar-riddled Nan is always last.

April Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Kilroy Was Here
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction

Allow me to present you with two options for how to spend your prom night: 1) You spend the evening captivated by a warm and intelligent sandy blonde named Marlene Summers who is the essence of wholesome beauty; 2) You guard your post on the bank of a river, protecting the Earth from an alien invader because that’s what you’re paid to do.
Likely, you are saying to yourself the choice is a real no-brainer. You’d pick Marlene in a heartbeat. No questions asked. Only a person of suspect mental stability would choose alien combat over Marlene.

Yet, as I’m standing on this river bank instead of dancing with Marlene, I tell myself I’m a responsible human being who honors his commitments and follows through on a job. Most likely, though, I’m a person of suspect mental stability.

But, a job is a job, and I had been hired by a company called Corporate after answering an ad on Craigslist. Some kids flip burgers to make some cash in high school. Others deliver newspapers or mow lawns. I work security guarding what is known as a soft spot in the space/time continuum that can be breached by aliens who wish to invade Earth. Cool gig. Dangerous. Also very mysterious. The only name the company goes by is Corporate; even on the business cards. They didn't give me business cards. I really want business cards.

I get to play with cool toys, too, but you have to read the manuals first.

April Secret Agent #36

GENRE: YA Fantasy

The fishing net caught the stitches on the back of her hand with a stomach-lurching jerk. Synne bit off a curse and hauled the empty net in, blood trickling down the crook between her thumb and finger. There were only five stitches, but three had torn free, and the puckered flesh was even uglier now. Her mother had stitched it up only the night before, and she kept a tally of the scars on Synne’s calloused fingers. All scars and no ring.

Synne sighed and ignored the school of cod flashing in the water. Swaying in her perch on the prow, she pinched the cut together, wrapped a bit of cloth around her palm, and knotted it.

She glanced to the stern, but, thankfully, Captain Cam wasn’t watching. He didn’t allow her to swear like the crew did, but then again, he was her father. Rough hands were a fisherman’s trademark, but he still fussed over her every time a hook marred her fingers or the ropes burned blisters into her palms. Probably because his wife only gave him an earful over Synne’s marriage prospects.

She picked up her casting net and rubbed the wet fibers between her fingers. Her shadow stretched past the bow and over the waves, and she could look east without squinting. It was the end of the day.
The boat was her second home. She’d spent half of her seventeen years on it.

April Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Frigid
GENRE: YA Speculative Fiction

I count the flakes, trying to discern between white and gray, ice and snow. I long for the warmth of the sun that has yet to wake the new day. The frigid bite of the cold enters my bones. The knots on my skyn as I loop, ring, pull, loop, ring, pull tug at something deep within. When I get to the end, I untie loosen, pull, release and start again. The cloud of my breath is as close as the northern air enveloping me. Far off on the frozen icefield, I yearn for the warmth of my mother and sisters as I wait for my father to return and accompany him home.

The horizon is a thin line bumped with silver, illuminating the Nouluiv—the northland. This is where creation begins, on the blank canvas of ice, the wind whispering life into being. The pale dawn kisses my cheeks awake; cozy in our home, my mother does the same to my little sisters. "Rise and shine my little dream makers. Let sleep keep the moon until the sun sets." Her voice echoes in recent memory as she eases us to waking, warming water and our furs as she keeps the fire stoked. Now I'm of age to set out onto the ice alone, and today I'll be the first one to greet my father.

The wind whistles shrilly, whipping up snow like dust, my only company on the lonely white plain...

April Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Letters of a Dying Misanthrope
GENRE: Adult Romance


            Red and blue lights flashed across my blurry vision, like a macabre, dripping watercolor. The lights reflected in the floor to ceiling glass doors of the ER, reverberating into my head with a harsh pulse.  My mouth opened and shut several times, any words I had hoped to speak died on my tongue. The pulsing grew louder, so loud that I could barely think. This wasn’t real. None of this was real.
            A loud, manic, guttural scream burst through my chest, a banshee’s heartbreaking wail curling into the damp, night air.

            My heart thumped painfully against my chest as I woke up drenched in sweat, my throat completely raw. Shaky hands fumbled with my water glass, spilling it all over my nightstand, all over my brand new paperbacks.

“Crap,” I croaked as I scrambled for socks, my comforter, anything to clean up my mess. Frustrated tears fell as I managed to rake my hands through my hair as my eyes scanned for the red and blue lights. Another sob broke through my pained throat as I fought to make the nightmare fade away.


Did everyone in Berkmore get together and decide to go to the post office at the same time? My palms started to sweat as my gaze slid across the parking lot, taking in all of the cars, the old men still shooting the breeze while propped up against their pickup trucks, the women loaded down with packages going exactly where I needed to go.

April Secret Agent #33

GENRE: YA Fantasy

           I closed my eyes.  When I opened them, my old life had vanished.  The new one is unrealistic, fueled by fear and amazement.  She is the one who fills it with amazement and helps me face my fears.  What happened was horrible, but it brought me to her, the only person I could ever truly love.

            It’s only been a few days, but already I seem to be losing memories of what my previous life was like.  I can only faintly remember getting up, going to school, and not having a care in the world.  My life was unremarkably normal and easy, full of the happy faces of those who loved me.

            I try not to dwell on what I have lost, except for the last few hours before it happened.  Those hours are vividly clear, seared into my brain, rewinding and playing nonstop.  Dad was making coffee, the strong stuff, always the strong stuff for him.  Mom was cracking eggs and yelling for my sister to wake up.  My fingers slipped five slices of crisp bacon from the plate on the stove.

            “Jacob!”  Mom’s voice was scolding, but her eyes were smiling.  “This bacon is not for breakfast.”  She pulled the plate out of my reach.  “Did you take your shot?”

            “Bacon should always be for breakfast.”  I grinned, crispy crumbs clinging to my lips.  “And yes; my butt is sufficiently pricked.”

            Mom shook her head.  “Don’t be a smart mouth.”

April Secret Agent #32

TITLE: TOSOM: Freshman
GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

I’m not a bald freak, Amarea thought.

A boy searched the crowd. He found her eyes and stared at her.

Amarea walked between her parents. Maybe that would make her less obvious. She noticed him across the courtyard, big brown eyes and messy brown hair. She blushed when she looked at him. She knew even the top of her skull would be pale pink; that’s the trouble with being a bald freak.
Stop looking at me, she thought. The boy looked away.

The gaggle of freshmen and their parents were squashed into the gym. The gym smelled of losses, victories, and week-old socks.

After a stimulating twenty minutes of welcomes from the principal and assistant principals, students were corralled into their homerooms, girls on one side of the hallway, boys on the other. The parents remained for more information on how to be a parent.

Once inside the classroom, no one said anything to Amarea. She sat by herself in the corner. She could see people glancing back at her, whispering about her.

She was used to the whispers. Cancer treatment doesn’t play nice with anyone and she’d been playing with treatments for a long time. Amarea looked down at her body. She looked more like someone who survived a concentration camp than a high school freshman.

I’m not contagious, she thought as a girl carefully placed a piece of paper on Amarea’s desk. The paper contained her schedule, locker combination, and vague instructions on how to open the lock.

April Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Off Pitch
GENRE: NA Romance

I stood back to watch my handiwork as the soccer ball soared gracefully into the top-right corner of the goal, and a whistle blew from somewhere near the sideline to signal the end of practice. I sighed with contentment at my own spectacular skill, and jogged toward the net to help clean up the mess of balls that littered the goal area. My bedeviled locks clung to my sweaty forehead as the summer sun beat down from the clear, August sky and reflected off Lake Michigan, bathing the soccer field in a double-whammy heat wave.

"God, Adds! Do you ever let up? The season hasn't even started, yet," Jessica whined from her position inside the goal.

"After 14 years on the pitch together, I thought you'd have learned the answer to that question.” I gave her chestnut ponytail a playful tug, and she glared at me while she leaned casually against the goal post.

"Well, there was that one time in first grade when we sat down in your living room and watched a movie," Jessica said with unbridled sarcasm.

"Ha. Ha." I rolled my eyes. Jessica Strobel and I had been best friends since first grade. Now, going into our junior year at Northwestern University, our relationship subsisted entirely on sarcasm and caffeine.

"I’ll tell you what. Since you managed to block almost 10% of my shots, and I know what a sore loser you are, I'll take you out to coffee after we're done here."

April Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Trowel and Error
GENRE: Adult Contemporary romance

Random gusts of wind buffeted the rental car and raindrops spattered the windshield as Eleanor Blake gripped the steering wheel. When menacing clouds first gathered on the horizon, she considered her options. She hated the thought of driving through a storm, but delaying her carefully planned journey was worse. Now that those clouds were dumping torrential rain, she regretted her decision. Her driving experience was limited and she was keenly aware that every mile she traveled must be retraced before she was home again.

Red lights glared on the car ahead of her and she tapped the brakes. The traffic slowed, then stopped. But something was moving up ahead, along the shoulder of the road. The windows were fogged and pebbled with raindrops, making it hard to see. A lone figure, hunched under a backpack. Jeans. A pair of hiking boots. Eleanor was sympathetic, but every warning she ever heard about hitchhikers clamored in her mind. Offering this stranger a ride might be kind, but that didn't make it smart. Or right. Not for her. Still, she couldn’t look away from the unfortunate traveler. Water dripped from the end of a ponytail and ran down the back of a denim jacket. A woman! Her sympathy was rekindled, the sense of danger faded. She pressed the button to lower the window.

“Can I give you a ride?”

The walker turned and Eleanor's eyes widened as a jolt of adrenaline flooded her stomach. The person looking back at her was a man.

April Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Death is Fleeting
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Gym socks. Floor polish. Pencil shavings. Teen agony. The smells of Cannon High School. Probably any high school. But Millie Krup only knew this one.

She walked down the corridors through nearly visible electrical currents, the charges zapping and crackling between hundreds of amped bodies.

She was headed to Homeroom on a Tuesday, her craziest day of the week. Even though she’d scribbled her schedule in her planner months earlier, she knew it by heart now:

7 a.m. Bus to school
7:40 a.m. Homeroom
8:00 a.m. Chemistry II  :-P
8:55 a.m. Algebra II  :-P
9:50 a.m. Advanced Spanish !!!
10:45 a.m. Study period
11:40 a.m. Lunch
12:15 p.m. English Lit  :0)
1:10 p.m. Art History   :0)
2:28 p.m. Spanish Club  !!!
3:42 p.m. Bus to the Pearl District
4:00 p.m. Work (at NorthWest Dispatch to earn money for the Spanish Club’s Barcelona trip)
6:35 p.m. Bus home
7:00 p.m. Dinner/Homework

It was sixteen hours of speed living. She normally loved the full day with every activity neatly filed into its time slot. Her mom had always called her “busy girl”. It was true. Frenetic schedules helped fill certain hollows in her life.

And she had dreams, big dreams: College, an awesome job, travel (SO much travel), for which she needed an impressive high school resume.

This particular Tuesday, though, dreams or not, her throat was scratchy, her slight body sluggish as if she moved through a wetland, her arms and legs catching on tendrils of aquatic plants while water filled her lungs.

April Secret Agent #28

TITLE: The Traveler
GENRE: YA Time Travel Romance

People say you won’t know your power until it arrives. That unless a Seer or a Glimpser tells you, you’ll have no way of guessing what it will be. But ever since I was a little girl, I couldn’t shake the strange sensation that I could somehow travel through time. Like if I really wanted to, I could disappear inside myself, fold inside out, and end up somewhere else.

    I just wasn’t exactly sure how to make it happen.

    Of course, I also believed time travel to be an absurd idea, so I never said a word to anyone.

    Then, one night when I was eight years old, I climbed into bed and fell asleep only to awaken terrified, outside on the frozen ground. In the inky blackness of night, I peered up at the sky, desperate for guidance from the Stars. But the only thing visible was a yellow-white sliver of moon. I stood, wondering if this was what it felt like to be dead.

    Wearing only my light sleeping clothes, I wandered aimlessly through the frigid darkness. My teeth chattered uncontrollably and no matter how tight I hugged my arms around my chest, no trace of warmth remained. If I wasn’t dead, it certainly seemed like I might freeze to death now.

    When faint yellow lights appeared in the distance, I urged my numb feet forward, following their glow. In time, I came upon an unfamiliar cottage nestled in the bare skeleton trees.

April Secret Agent #27

TITLE: The Truth About Darwin
GENRE: YA Romance

His name was Arnie Crandall and his naked body was two feet from my naked body. There was no way this was a coincidence. The shower was running. Steam saturated our tiny bathroom. My silhouette had nowhere to hide behind the transparent shower curtain and yet here he was, stark naked himself, urinating right next to me.

    I tried not to panic. My mind searched for an exit strategy and yet my towel, hanging several feet away on the back of the bathroom door, offered none. What did I really know about this Arnie guy? Virtually nothing. My mother’s new boyfriend was so uninteresting; I had forgotten to take an interest.

    To my credit, he’d only been living with us for 18 days. Barely enough time to run him through the registered sex offender database and search his profile against America’s Most Wanted.

    “Hey,” he uttered as he stuffed a toothbrush into his mouth, attempting some kind of oral hygiene.
    Hey. Did he just say hey to me as if it was completely natural that a 48 year-old man was free balling it in front of a 14 year-old girl? Where the heck was Valerie? Although my mother’s parenting style could best be described as “hands off” this was absurd.

    “I guess we’re going to have to get used to close quarters around here, huh Meagan?” Arnie stated with a chuckle.

    I backed up into the corner of the shower and covered my vagina with a bottle of Head and Shoulders.

April Secret Agent #26

GENRE: Adult Fantansy

The frigid metal plank leeched all the heat from her body, sucking it up and destroying it without a trace. The table didn't get any warmer, and she only got colder. But today, Essence didn't care. Her mind failed to register anything that happened to her strapped-down body. It raced and worked, amplifying the noises of the outside world, cataloging the technicians’ activities, prioritizing her escape.

Hollowed screams bounced down the concrete hall outside her cell. An unforgiving march as soldiers dragged a new inmate along. Another captive like her, but also not like her.

Essence’s ears perked, hearing the scrappy push and pull of resistance. Quieting the urgency of her mind, she tried to see if she recognized the woman. The unit stopped at an empty cell. The woman shrieked again as metal batons shoved her in. The heavy door rattled closed, scratching at its hinges. A jarring sound, and never a good thing. Either they captured someone new, or they extracted someone old. Neither would ever be seen again. An icy shiver ran through Essence’s body.

The woman called out. Grief—more than pain, more than fear—filled her cries. The voice sounded young, too young. Shaking her head, Essence’s eyes clouded over and she plunged back deep inside. The new inmate wasn't the one she searched for, the one that led her to this place, the one that got her caught.

But the woman didn't have to worry. In a few minutes, Essence would set her free.

April Secret Agent #25

TITLE: The Witch and the Demon
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba ran into the moonless night. Her soaked dress clung to her skin, wind and wetness competing to freeze her into a corpse. Tree roots banged her feet and fatigue crept up from her shaking limbs to numb her brain. If she fell, she might not be able to get up again. Keep moving. Get as far away from the witchfinder as possible, may he be reincarnated as a constipated drunk’s chamber pot.

In the darkness, directions blurred. She focused on climbing up the mountain, away from her village. Faster, faster, faster. Her lungs took on the weight of iron balls.

Her left knee finally gave out—right when another root caught her ill-fitting clog. Her ankle bent sideways with a crack. She hit the dirt.

Waves of agony crashed over her. Mustn’t stop moving. But her body refused to rise. She wanted to scream or cry. Instead, Ebba took a deep breath. To focus her mind, she pinched her face, right on top of the scabs from the witchfinder’s pins. The itching behind her eyes from too long without sleep, the burning of her throat, the blistering sores on her hand—everything faded away.

Heartbeat steady, she groped for a tree root. Her right hand oozed pus from the burns on her palm, so she used her left one to pull herself into a sitting position. The merest touch to the swollen lump was torture. Through the pain, the rational part of her noted this felt worse than a sprain.

April Secret Agent #24

GENRE: Adult Thriller

Thursday – Day Two

Sometimes it’s wiser to forget a day than to try remembering it, but being wise was the least of Jeffrey Blake’s worries. He clenched his fist, fearing the knife at his throat would prick his skin. Again! Or worse—kill him. He wanted to get out, run away, run for his life. He couldn’t move. I don’t want to die.

A blunt voice rattled him, crawled under his skin. “You’re responsible.”

Blake cracked his eyes open, stifled a cry, and shot up in bed, his body covered in cold sweat.
The seasons’ first brisk morning breeze streaming through the window raised his hair, but he still felt as if his head had collided with a concrete wall at full throttle: his brain—derailed. A memory gushed back—the knife. Instinctively he threw a hand to his throat. He pushed out his breath, but couldn’t shake off the uncanny feeling that something wasn’t right.

He tilted his head to the side. She was asleep, purring next to him. Last thing he needed was throwing his wife into the same panic he felt streaming through him. With care he peeled himself out of the blankets and sneaked to the spacious granite en-suite bathroom.

His body cried out for water, reminding him of times when he’d had too many drinks, but the water he gulped straight from the tap didn’t kill his thirst, nor did splashing it in his face help lift the fog.
I’m alive. How?

April Secret Agent #23

TITLE: A Beastly Beauty
GENRE: YA Fantasy

My night of freedom had arrived, and I wasn’t wasting a moment. The gate clicked behind me. At last I was on the right side of our estate walls again—the side where the rest of the world awaited. I nudged my horse’s flanks, and he snorted.

“All right, Domino,” I whispered. “Let it out.” My heart leaped as he broke into a gallop. We were going to town.

If I could kiss the full moon with gratitude, I would. Once each month, the curse was contained. Between moonrise this morning and moonset tonight, I looked like a human instead of a nightmare.
The wind whistled through my hair as I urged Domino on. He was likely as sick as I was of trotting in sedate circles around the courtyard like a tethered pony.

He leapt over a log, bouncing me in the saddle. My stomach flipped at the feeling, but this wasn’t a night for nerves. It was a night for dancing and billiards and… Maybe this night would be the night. The night I had grown up dreaming of.

The night I’d find a way to break the curse.

Once Domino and I made it off the crest of the hill, I glanced back at our estate. Inside the stone wall, the castle's upper windows were dark. In a few minutes my father, the frosty Marquis of Molinas, would settle into his bed for the night. But his secret cursed daughter, the invisible Isabella? I was already gone.

April Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Tightrope
GENRE: YA Contemporary Thriller

The living room curtains block the early morning sunshine, shrouding the threadbare sofa in shadow. It’s been more than a year since my mother slept in her own bed; months since the cancer allowed her more than the briefest moment of comfort. She has retreated inside herself, a ghost of the woman who raised me with love.

“You’ll be okay, Mama?” I hesitate in the doorway with her steaming cup of tea, holding still until I see her stir. My greatest fear is finding her in this hell-hole of a room on the day I wake up and she doesn’t.

Her breath fills her lungs on a loud inhale, rough at the end. The room smells like old food and cigarettes, blended with the ripe odor of a withered body and blankets that need washing.

“Is it morning, Toni?” she asks thickly beneath the pain and the ever-increasing dose of meds that do nothing to mask it. I frown as she reaches for a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. “Heading to school?”

I set the tea on the table within her reach, covering the rings from past cups with the pristine white mug. “Yes.”

She adjusts her hips on the concaved sofa cushion, hissing through her teeth. “Be careful, mi chica.”
I smile sadly at her pet name for me. Mama used to live in Mexico, as a nanny and teacher for a wealthy family. It was where she met my father, but we don’t talk about him.

April Secret Agent #21

TITLE: Borrowed Time
GENRE: Adult Science Fiction

            What is my name?

            The slash of a longsword accompanied each unspoken word, as if the question’s answer lay behind the morning mists. Exhausted, frustrated, defeated, the unarmored knight drove the blade into the dirt at his feet, panting and glaring at the sun-drenched leaves all around. Had it been this difficult before? Was remembering his name so problematic yesterday? He couldn’t remember that either. “Yesterday” was already fading away. Disgusted, he turned, spotting his shield where he’d left it propped against a tree trunk. He spun the metal triangle around, letting the concave inner surface show him his reflection. Longish blond hair, intelligent blue eyes, scruff of beard on chin and cheeks—precisely the young man he knew would greet him when he woke earlier.

            But it wasn’t his face. Nor was yesterday’s. Nor would tomorrow’s be.

            And the name… the name eluded him. Immersing himself in today’s vocation hadn’t helped draw it out of his tangled mind, even after the other shards of knighthood had fallen into place. The two-day carriage ride from his home in Dunham Massey to Stamford Castle. Arriving too late last night to greet his host, Baron Fitzwalter. Collapsing on a straw mat in his dark chambers. It all happened, the memories crystal clear in his mind. It just hadn’t happened to him. He couldn’t even be certain he was present for the recurring nightmare that woke him mere hours ago.

April Secret Agent #20

GENRE: YA Contemporary Magical Realism

My heaven is a dive bar, and I’m the only patron. I’m not lonely. Robert, my bartender, is good company and provides me with an endless supply of vodka tonics.

I decorated the inside of my bar top to bottom with rainbows, smiling faces, and stick figure sisters holding hands. I drew them from memory. They’re exact replicas of my little sister’s drawings. But lately I’ve noticed something’s wrong with the paper.

“You okay, Mary?” Robert asks. “You don’t look good.”

I point at a drawing. “I wish I could crawl inside a picture. Be back then. Be a sister again.”

To keep tears back I focus my eyes between the amber bourbon bottles. When I stare in that exact spot, the mirror reflects gold onto Anjuli’s rainbow painting and makes the sun glow. It reminds me of the way sunshine smelled on her skin. Wait—now there’s a hole in the picture where the sun used to be. It looks like a cigarette burn.

That can’t be good.

“You have the entire universe at your disposal and this is what you do with it?” Robert asks.

“The only flaw with this heaven is I can’t turn off my brain.” I tap my temple and take a sip. “Today I can’t stop wondering what made an otter ever eat an urchin? And why do I keep going over my locker combination?”

“Ninety-nine, eighty-seven, sixteen.” Robert spins an invisible dial right, left, right.

April Secret Agent #19

TITLE: Lunatic Squad
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

I pounded the last nail in the coffin. Just another day’s work getting the pretend dead bodies ready.

            “Only ten days until opening night,” Scout muttered as she unfolded one of the many bloodstained sheets we had. She tossed them from the back of my cousin, Kincaid’s, pickup truck.

       Kincaid sat his lazy carcass on one of the lawn chairs in front of the porch. The house was soon to be the fabulous Nightmare Lane. Our family’s haunt or better yet reason number eleven I was an inconvenience to them.

            “You know, this would go a lot faster if you got off your ass.” I smiled at him with all the lovely sarcasm I could muster. I huffed and puffed. Pushed sweaty pieces of my ginger hair aside.

            “Why don’t you just use your powers?” he sighed. “It’s such a waste of time doing this the normal way.”

            “Because Grandpa’s gonna know,” I said, resisting the annoying urge to add “duh.”

            “Duh,” Scout said as she hopped out of the truck’s bed and wiped her hands on her ripped jeans.

    We may have been fraternal twins―Scout had all the color while I had zero―but our heads were always in sync no matter what. I could count on it.

            “The moon’s full. And you promised, Salem,” Kincaid pointed out as he took a sip of his bottle of coke, sitting up taller in the lawn chair with that stupid smug look on his face. I guess he wasn’t tall enough already.

April Secret Agent #18

TITLE: Run or Be Dragged
GENRE: Adult Romantic Suspense

As much as I’d like to blame my boyfriend and the stupid fight we had, it’s my fault I’m lost in the woods with no flashlight and only a denim jacket for warmth. He’s the adventurous one, this camping trip to the Adirondacks was all his idea. In my defense it wasn’t dark when I stormed away from camp and it should have been only a five minute hike to the lake.

The early autumn wind cut right through me as I tried to get my bearings in the dark. Even though the moon was full, I couldn’t see any sign of the lake. A dense canopy filtered out all but the weakest light, leaving just enough to give me false confidence.

Loud male voices made me pause. Was there a campsite this far from the others or had I been hiking in a big circle? Dry leaves shuffled over my ankles as I jogged forward and caught a glimpse of the moon reflecting off the lake.

“We can’t just leave her there!” a man shouted.

His plaintive tone stopped me in my tracks. Crouching low, I peered through the branches of an evergreen and saw two men in leather jackets sitting at the edge of the lake.

“We can too,” another man said, in a thick Brooklyn accent. “It ain’t none of our business Nick, so don’t start going soft on me now.”

“She’s unhappy,” the first voice, Nick, insisted.

“She made her own decisions,” the second voice said flatly.