Inside Scoop–13 questions with Frasier Armitage on “Circle of Champions”

For the pass-the-baton story “Circle of Champions,” Frasier Armitage wrote the second segment. I wrote the first segment introducing our hero, Salem, and I gave Frasier the task of including some history, moving the story forward, and using the color “orange” in a mere 250 words.

This interview is full of spoilers, so read the completed story here first.

Frasier, who was the very first winner of my finish-my-story contest, considers himself a new writer. But he has a lot of polish and thinks a lot about details and the writing process.

Here’s my Q&A with Frasier on the behind-the-scenes creation of his story segment:

1) What did you first think when you were invited to participate? (Four writers wrote this story, each writing a 250-word segment before passing it to the next writer.)

My first thought was that this was a great idea. I love collaborating with authors.

But being asked to participate was actually a huge landmark for me. I’m just getting started as a writer, and this was the first time someone had approached me and asked for my writing. It gave me a feeling of legitimacy, like I was a real author. And you can’t beat that feeling.

[Editor’s Note: Of course, Frasier is a real writer, and he is also a real author, having completed his first manuscript. As of this writing, at least one agent has already requested a full manuscript. We hope a publisher snaps him up quickly!]

2) What did you think of your assignment? I wrote the first 250 words and then handed it off to you. I think I asked you to weave in some history.

You structured things really well by assigning each of us a specific brief. That way, every segment of the story fulfilled a purpose that fed into an overall arc, and would come together to form a cohesive whole.
I was tasked with adding history. At first, I thought about writing the origin of the Thunderdome, maybe as a flashback, or a time jump. I thought about writing the accounts of previous winners.


But every story belongs to a character. And this one belonged to Salem. So although it would’ve been fun to explore the world, I wanted to include as much character history as possible, while also backfilling some of the plot.
I figured that was the best way to fulfill the brief.

What kind of Sci Fi writer wouldn’t absolutely love to play around with giant mech-suit battles fought in space?

3) What was your first impression of the story?

One word: COOL! You’d written such a strong introduction, I couldn’t wait to get started on it. What kind of Sci Fi writer wouldn’t absolutely love to play around with giant mech-suit battles fought in space? I mean, you see how awesome that sounds, right?

4) What did you find most intimidating about the process?

I was afraid that I’d ruin what you’d started. I was the first person to add a section onto the story, which meant that there were two other writers counting on me to keep up the quality so that readers wouldn’t lose interest. I felt like I owed it to them to write a solid 250 words, which was a lot of self-imposed pressure.

Also, my brain is geared towards plot, so it was bizarre getting my head around the fact I wouldn’t be writing a resolution to the things I included. Trying to keep the plot as open ended as possible while maintaining a certain level of interest was an interesting challenge, and gave me a good chance to develop my writing skills.

5) Why did you accept the offer? I mean, it’s only 250 words, I paid nothing for them, and you had no idea whether this project would be a success or a disaster.

Any opportunity to write with other authors is too good to miss. I learn so much from every author I interact with, and I definitely learnt from you, Jim, and Shanel on this project. It was exactly what I hoped for. Plus, I’m a newbie writer without a fanbase, so what did I have to lose?

6) You began with the words “Come to Mama,” words spoken by Salem, but I almost felt that was you speaking. I felt you really got excited by the mecha or exo-suit concept.

I watch and read a lot of Sci Fi. There’s no other genre like it. My debut novel is a time-bending thriller set on Earth in a city where events in the present can alter history. It’s the polar opposite of exo-suits in space-arenas, so I was beyond excited to write something so different to what I’d been working on.

The line “Come to Mama” was born out of two factors. First, there’d been no dialogue in the story up to that point, so I tried to think about pacing and balance from the reader’s perspective, and knew I had to start with dialogue. And second, I spent a while building a picture of Salem from what you’d written about her, and when I typed “Come to Mama,” it was one of those eureka moments for a character where her personality just clicked.

Plus, when you’ve only got 250 words to work with, you’ve got to make every sentence count, so stripping down her reaction to just three words was a big win! It gave me room to pick up from where you left off and dive into something new.

7) Where did you get the idea of Neon Tigress?

When I imagined the origin of the Thunderdome, I’d pictured the contest as a Sci Fi extension of pro-wrestling, where larger than life personalities battle together to become the champion. Neon Tigress came out of that.

Plus, a tigress with neon stripes adds some cool imagery.

8) Why is she a tigress but her mecha is a banshee?

I figured that before she made her killer move, her armour would do something specific to signify that death was about to occur, similar to the banshees in folklore wailing to warn of death. And I can picture a tigress roaring before making her kill, so there was a tenuous link in my mind. Whether that was present on the page or not is another matter!

But I mainly wanted to convey that she had tricks up her sleeve that nobody else could match, in order to provide a decent obstacle for Salem.

9) Why is Neon Tigress a “founding fighter”? Tell me about the idea of her “returning from retirement.” Was that a breadcrumb you dropped to see if the other writers would pick it up?

I only had so much room to squeeze in some kind of origin for the competition. I could’ve written thousands of words on my segment! So I tried to imply as much as I could in as few words as possible.

The ‘founding fighters’ was an expression that came to me which might signify to the reader that Neon Tigress was a classic hero of the Thunderdome, and that she’d been there from the start, which would tie in with her being a big fighter when Salem was a girl. I figured that the “founding fighters” would be those iconic kinds of legends that never really fade from pop culture. And the only way to match Salem against her would be to bring her out of retirement for one final bout.

If Rocky got back in the ring, except he wore a giant robot exoskeleton, people would probably want to see what happened. Also, I was trying not to give too much away. I didn’t want to narrow the scope of the story by explaining everything. I wanted to expand it by alluding to a past that none of the other writers knew about!

But all we know about Salem’s mech is that it’s red, and it has dodgy thrusters!

10) I don’t think anyone carried forward the fact that Neon Tigress’s mech is a banshee. Thoughts? Where would you have taken that, if anywhere?

The banshee mech was something to demonstrate that Neon Tigress was impressive and intimidating. She has a custom banshee mech, but all we know about Salem’s mech is that it’s red, and it has dodgy thrusters! So it was my way of amping up the stakes, which the other writers did a brilliant job of.

You get the idea that Salem versus Tigress is like a David versus Goliath type of setup, and that’s largely down to the way that everybody else wrote their parts. But that’s exactly the impression I was hoping to achieve in their bout, so I was thrilled that the other writers chose to run with it.

11) As an additional challenge, one of your 250 words had to be the word “orange.” What did you think of that challenge? If you put the project together, would you have included additional writing challenges? Would they have been tougher?

The colour challenge was one of those extras that helped to frame where I was taking the story. I didn’t want to just throw it in there. I wanted it to feel like the colour belonged there. So it was good to figure out how that was going to work. Any more writing challenges, and I think my head would have exploded!

The great thing with the colour challenge was that you didn’t stifle our freedom in any way. If the challenge had been any more specific, then it might have hampered the story we could’ve told.

12) You live in England. Are you a football fan (what we call soccer in the U.S.)? You wrote “the emcee interrupted a carnival of klaxons from the VIP boxes.” I wondered if that was inspired by Earthly sports you follow. Any thoughts on the Thunderdome?

I grew up playing soccer, and I remember going to see my local soccer team play a few times, but there weren’t any klaxons—just a crowd of grown-ups chanting ceaselessly in the freezing cold!

I’ve always preferred playing sports to watching them. Having said that, I try my best to catch the Super Bowl every year. For us in the UK, that might mean staying up very late, hoping that if you keep eating hot dogs, you might make it to the final quarter before sleep defeats you. Or it might mean trying to catch a rerun the next day before your phone tells you who won!

I’m not a massive sports nut, but if the Thunderdome were real, I think I’d probably tune in! Probably more for the fact it’s mech-suits in space than the actual contest though!

13) To wrap up, I have to ask about Salem’s Mom saying the matches are rigged. How did you think that would play out in the story? Any hopes there? Or were you handing us an easy out for rescuing Salem?

I hoped my segment would feel like a complete story in and of itself, as well as part of the overall narrative. Because you were releasing the segments week by week, I was conscious of the need to satisfy a reader with the snapshot of the story they’d get that particular week. And being the plot-centric guy that I am, despite my best efforts not to resolve anything, I just couldn’t resist some kind of conclusion!

Salem’s Mom saying it was rigged was a way I could finish that part of the narrative while still opening up potential plot points for the following writers. Secretly, I was hoping that someone might pick up on it, and when you did, I fistpumped the air! It was an awesome ending, not because it referred back to my segment, but because the theme of everyone’s writing was consistent. It was a story about a girl who’d been fighting her whole life, and in the end, she finally won. The fact that the contest was rigged just makes her victory even sweeter. It couldn’t have ended better.


Please post your comments below. And feel free to leave questions for Frasier or me.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross


Strange Flu

Please enjoy this beautiful microfiction story by Voima Oy.

by Voima Oy

It was a strange flu that affected children under 5 years old, and left them withdrawn and quiet. They would build fantastic spaceships out of Legos and arrange pebbles in the patterns of the constellations.

They all had faraway eyes.


Thanks to Voima Oy for allowing us to share this beautiful piece of Sci Fi microfiction. You can find Voima on Twitter using the handle @voimaoy.

How I survived the first battle of the Circle of Champions

Ever had one of those 3 a.m. ideas?

What I mean is those epiphanies of genius that light up our brains. Ideas we fall in love with immediately. Ideas that won’t let go.

These ideas often come to us late at night or even in the early morning hours. That’s why I call them “3 a.m. ideas.” They may wake us in the middle of the night or they may come to our sleep-deprived brains when we’ve stayed up all night.

Jerry McGuire, in the film of the same title, lost his job because of a personal crisis of conscience and a 3 a.m. idea. He wrote, printed and distributed a manifesto on how sports agents should deal with their clients. It went against industry norms and he lost his job. And he was black-balled. Clearly, not all 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas.

Writers often have these 3 a.m. ideas. For Sci Fi writers, these ideas are for stories. If we latch onto these ideas, they can become our works-in-progress (WIPs). Sometimes the ideas are bad. Sometimes all we need is the cold light of day to realize how bad a 3 a.m. idea is. Sometimes we just need a good night of sleep. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes 10,000 words or longer.

But sometimes these 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas. Sometimes they really are the brushes with genius they feel like they are. But it’s hard to know which is which.

The longer I write and the more I blog, the smoother the idea machine in my head seems to work. The gears keep whirring–warm and oiled–working smoothly in concert. And the 3 a.m. ideas seem to come to me at all times of the day now. I don’t know if they are any good, but the ideas keep flowing.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya Angelou

So it was this week, when I should have been working on the December Contest story beginning. And I still have to post that this Sunday for release on Monday, and there’s a good amount of work yet to be done. But instead, I was thinking about my three “Champions,” the winners of my monthly contests for September, October and November. I chat with all three now and follow them on Twitter.

If you have read any of my previous thoughts on writing, you know that I believe the best writing ideas are often born from the combination of two disparate, unrelated ideas. In this case, I was toying with two ideas:

The ideas came so quickly, I’m not sure the order. And there were some false starts and dead ends thrown in there. But I imagined a story written by my Champions and me in pass-the-baton fashion, each of us writing a segment. And that story would be named after them, my Champions.

And in the flow of ideas came the first image: a young woman in a mechanized battle suit floating inside a sphere. She looks up and sees a row of windows–like a luxury suite at a sports arena–where the ranks of champions watch her. And then the name came to me: “Circle of Champions.”

Should it have been “Sphere of Champions”? After all, the sphere I envisioned was clearly the arena for a futuristic gladiator match. But then I thought of the contestants themselves, all vying for the one seat among the professional gladiators, and I thought that the contestants themselves were the champions–elite champions selected from all over the globe. Or maybe the solar system? Or maybe the galaxy?

I’ll leave that detail up to the writers who follow me to decide. But when I thought of those combatants, it felt right that they should be the Circle of Champions. (Consider the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four in NCAA basketball.)

And so it seemed fitting that I should also name the winners of my writing contests my Circle of Champions. And, to bring things full circle here, my first three contest winners–my Circle of Champions–should help me write this story “Circle of Champions.”

The Challenge

So, in Jerry McGuire fashion, I wrote the idea up and sent the challenge to my Champions. I did not wait. I did not sleep on it. I did not tend to my blogging duties and my December Contest.

This was Wednesday, November 25, the day before Thanksgiving. Here’s the challenge I sent them:

CHALLENGE!!!

I’ve come up with a fun December writing challenge. No prizes this time. Just one great story and a chance to turn the tables on me. I’ll write a story beginning of a story called, what else, “Circle of Champions.” I’ve set my limit at 250 words.

Frasier, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to continue the story.

Jim, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Frasier.

Shanel, if she accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Jim.

And then I must conclude the story in 250 words. Hoping and praying that you guys have not set me up to fail. 🙂

As I said, I already had the beginning image of a story in my head, so I wanted to write the first 250 words. But I thought it might be a fun twist on my writing contest–which I always start and contestants always finish–if I had to finish the story this time. I thought my Champions might also enjoy this turnabout. I’m hoping they will be kind and not write me into a corner. But I will accept the fate they assign me and finish the story as best I can.

And in quick fashion, each of my Champions accepted the challenge. Quickly and without hesitation.

The Rub

All three accepted! Wait, all three accepted? This was real. This was happening.

Next I had to set the calendar. Since all three Champions accepted, I needed five story segments. Remember, I wanted to write the first and last segments. And no Champion could start their segment until the previous one was written. But readers cannot wait forever for a 250-word installment. So it came to be that I scheduled each segment to be released on a Friday with the final segment–my ending–to be released on December 25.

Christmas Day? Truly a coincidence, but why not? Then our readers get a special gift on Christmas Day. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you can enjoy a completed Sci Fi story on December 25. But that meant I had to write my 250-word segment by today, November 27, only two days after I issued the challenge. And I wanted to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.

You see how these 3 a.m. ideas can lead you into folly?

The Battle of Words

So I took a walk.

When I need fresh ideas, I find a walk sometimes helps. I take my phone and open a dictation app and dictate what comes to me. It’s not Shakespeare, but I’m not Shakespeare on my best day, anyway. And the dictation needs tons of clean up. But I get a few words on the page, usually some good images fleshed out, and, if I’m lucky, a bit of action.

Well, I finished the walk with some gobbledygook, but I had 251 words. The exercise also let me know I had really wasted some words on starting the scene in a space taxi. No room for that when I only have 250 words to set the stage for my Champions.

So this morning, I rewrote the whole thing. But I kept the beginning line, “Welcome to the Circle of Champions!” And the reference to the Death Star and some other key pieces. I wanted to describe the arena in a lot more detail, but that eats up words fast. In flash fiction, it helps to use universal references that complete a picture in as few words as possible. For brevity, it’s hard to beat “Death Star.”

My rewrite, after a little clean up, was more than 350 words! I went back through it twice more. I had so many lovely details and I didn’t want to give any of them up. In despair, I considered cheating.

I rationalized to myself. “Only my Champions know the word limit I set. No harm done. I’ll just reset the challenge at 300 words per segment. It will be like giving my Champions a gift of 50 extra words. They’ll probably thank me.”

It didn’t feel right, but the clock was ticking. I read and reread my story. I tinkered here and there. I reworded, rephrased and cut, cut, cut. And lo and behold, I got it down to 275 words!

This, I thought, this is even better than the 350+ version! I still had to cut 25 words, and I knew a word parsed here and there would not do the job. I was going to have to cut a whole sentence, maybe two. Somehow I found a way and got it to 247 words. I put a few back and I was at 250!

I had done it! I had met the challenge!

Then I did my spell check. And it turns out “Death Star” is two words. Agony!

Wait, I had used “Death Star” only once! And by this time, I had rewritten a few spots over and over. I knew I could easily add or lose a word in those places. I took out an adjective and Boom-Boom, I was done!

I actually said “Boom-Boom” aloud.

Why? I don’t know. Why does Tiger Woods pump his fist? Why do running backs dance in the end zone? Because it feels good.

I had done it! I was done! I rock! Boom-Boom!

And then “Thunderdome” came up in the spell checker. But wait, if “Death Star” is two words, how many words is “Thunderdome”? I panicked. I had used Thunderdome a bunch of times. (I just checked. Only three times, it turns out.)

I did a quick Google search. Relief washed through me. Thunderdome was one word, just as I’d recalled.

250 words exactly. Boom-Boom!

And that’s how I survived my first Battle of the Thunderdome. Now, it’s Frasier Armitage’s turn in the hot seat. Good luck, Frasier!

Frasier’s Challenge

Here’s the challenge I gave Frasier. He has to seamlessly continue the story and add some “history.” I imagine that will be backstory for our intrepid hero, Salem. But that’s up to Frasier.

He must write it in 250 words or less. And he must use the word “orange.”

For added fun, I assigned each segment a color of the rainbow. (My daughter loves rainbows. Rainbow is her favorite color.) My first segment includes the word “red.” Frasier must use “orange.” Jim must use “yellow.” Shanel has “green.” And I’ll finish the last segment using the word “blue” somewhere.

That should not be too hard. And sometimes, for writers especially, limitations or requirements that seem binding at first can lead us to interesting new ideas.

That’s all for now. But I’ll post some more thoughts and comments here when Frasier shares his installment of “Circle of Champions” next Friday.

Feel free to share comments below. I love comments and I always respond.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross