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:


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

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