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

Here are the prizes for the February Contest winner

This is astronaut Major A. Ward. She is the trophy for the February Contest. But there’s more!

For February, I’m presenting a host of prizes for the winner:

  • $25 cash (in the form of an Amazon gift certificate)
  • Trophy–The Maj. A. Ward amigurumi astronaut (I crocheted her myself. She’s about 5 inches tall.)
  • A Twitter banner–or use wherever you like–pronouncing you the winner of the January Contest.
  • Listing in the Circle of Champions on this website, including your social media contacts and website link, if you’d like to share them.
  • Lots and lots and lots of promotion on Twitter. (I go a little crazy.)
  • Other opportunities to mix and mingle with my other Champions and join them in special projects. (Check out my current special project exclusive to my Circle of Champions.)

Why not get started now?

The secret origins of Major A. Ward

Abby Sy designed this astronaut pattern and named it Roberta the Astronaut in honor of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space. Abby is a crochet designer who lives in Toronto with her dog Ollie. Read more about Abby and Hollie.

The photos and photographers of The Secret War

The photographers of provided me with a great collection of photos for my February Contest story: “The Secret War.”

Let’s start with the main image for story. The only alterations I made to this photo were to crop it to fit and add the text. Here is the original, unaltered photo in all its glory.

Lake Avon

This photo represents the south side of Lake Avon across from the city of Whitehall. Photo by Jackson Hendry (

Jackson Hendry of Salt Lake City took this photo. It’s actually a photo of Lost Lake in the United States. Here is how Jackson describes how he captured this gorgeous sky:

“Spent the whole night in absolute silence at Lost Lake in the Uinta mountains watching the Milky Way roll across the horizon. This was taken just after the sun had gone down and the sky was still slightly blue.”

Jackson’s interests include beach images, outdoor photography, adventure, star images, and astronomy.

Floating in the vacuum of space

Image: A wake ripples across dark water with dark, evergreens in the background
The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. Photo by Steve Halama (

Steve Halama captured this beautiful, textured image of waves across Lake McDonald in the United States. He loves capturing images of nature, adventure, travel and Hawaii. You can also find him on Instagram at @Steve3p_0.

Trees along the Elizabeth River

Trees along the Elizabeth River.
Photo by Michael Aleo.

I did not title this image for the story. I just used it to add nighttime ambiance for Juliet’s nighttime trip down the Elizabeth River. Although the photos for “The Secret War” were taken all across the United States, I believe I achieved uniformity in selecting nighttime shots of water and evergreens.

Michael Aleo captured this beautiful blue sky over the trees at Red Rock Lake in the United States. Michael is a photographer, designer, and technologist. He loves taking landscapes, nature, and candid shots. He has photographed five continents, a dozen national parks, President Obama, Kris Kristofferson, and a million dogs. Michael hails from the Washington, D.C./Maryland area. You can learn more about him here:

Sandy Beach

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. Photo by Yusuf Evli.

Yusuf Evli took this great vertical shot of the night sky with all its variations of blue and maybe some touches of purple. The photo shows a beach, and so it served perfectly for Juliet’s landing along the Elizabeth River. But it’s certainly the sky that caught my eye in this beautiful photo. But if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for a starry sky.

Yusuf is a creative director from Düsseldorf, Germany. On Unsplash, Yusuf has interior, nature, landscape, and “wanderlust” images. You can learn more about him at

The Trees of the Forest of Arden

The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden. Photo by Gabrielle Mustapich (

Gabrielle Mustapich of Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada captured this starry sky in Bowron Lake Provincial Park in Canada. Even though the lake is not visible in this shot, it is very fitting for our story that it was shot close to the water. Here is how Gabrielle describes capturing this beautiful image:

“This was shot on the last night of a five-day portage in the BC Cariboo. The chill of autumn made the star-scape as brilliant as ever.”

Gabrielle is inspired by the Pacific West Coast. Her interests include nature, portrait, candid, landscape and “adventure” images. You can find her work at

Win a cash prize if you write the best finish to my story–February Contest

This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less. See the prizes here!

February Contest: All submissions are due by midnight February 15, 2021.

Look here for contest rules.

INTRODUCTION: This story takes place on the planet simply known as The Globe, on a stretch of water between Whitehall, also called the First City, and the farming community of Finsbury to the south. Long before the Night of the Rocket and nearly fifty years before the Seven Day War there was …

The Secret War

Juliet gunned the thrusters of the hover.

She sped across the surface of Lake Avon, heading south towards the dark headland. Around that bend was the end of the lake and the beginning of freedom. The headland cinched the Elizabeth River’s waist back to her usual trim shape on her journey south to the farming community of Finsbury, the breadbasket of The Globe.

She glanced back at the bright lights of Whitehall’s crystalline towers. Whitehall–First City of The Globe. A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind. Her parents had told her she had to choose between her family and Romeo. So she had chosen. She did not know what her future held or where she would live, but as long as she was with Romeo, nothing else mattered.

She pumped her thrusters, urging the hover forward, but the throttle was already fully open. 

Ahead, the headland, dark with trees, formed a silhouette, refusing to reflect back the distant lights of Whitehall. It suddenly loomed up. It was too close and she was going too fast to make the bend into the main channel of the river.

Her hands twitched at the controls, her feet at the pedals, working thrusters and steering gyros at the same time to spin the hover. She used the hover’s own momentum to simultaneously slow her and spin her in the right direction. The hover, normally silent, growled in protest and threw a huge spray of water that glowed white in the darkness.

A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind.

That would attract the attention of the lifeguard drones hovering high overhead. And the subaquatic monitors would record the unusual wave pattern. But as long as she didn’t capsize, they would not act. And no one would be alerted.

She knew her father monitored her movements, or leastways, his machines did, and some of his flunkies audited those data streams. But she had taken precautions.

She had removed her own tracker months ago. To avoid suspicions, she carried it with her throughout Whitehall, but whenever she left to meet Romeo, she clipped it to her cat, Thisbe. This night, she had not taken her own customized hover, choosing a plain, black model from the family boathouse from which she had removed all the trackers.

Even at sixteen, she was one of the best hover pilots in Whitehall, which meant she was one of the best anywhere north of Newlondon. (No one could compare with Newlondoners, who learned to sail before they learned to walk.) Her secret was her finesse. And being a girl, of course. Everyone knew girls made better pilots than ham-handed boys, who always tried to muscle the controls. That’s one reason she was driving further than Romeo to meet up tonight; she could drive faster and better in the dark. He was good at sports–really good–but even he had to admit she was the better pilot of the two. No one in Whitehall or Finsbury compared with her on a hover.

The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. Photo by Steve Halama.

The hover dove into the near total darkness on the far side of the headland. The darkness was so complete, Juliet flinched from the sensation of colliding with something solid. The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. She held her breath. But the slight wind across her face brought her back to her senses and she clicked on the hover’s lights for the first time. It was safe. She was beyond sight, sound, or sensor of Whitehall. She was free!

She was free to see her Romeo!

The irony was not lost on her. On a planet named The Globe, everyone knew the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Growing up, Juliet had never thought their story a romantic one. They were stupid. Killing themselves? For what? For love?

Of course, Romeo was the stupidest one. If he’d just waited a little bit longer. If he’d just made absolutely sure, Juliet would have woken up eventually. And they could have lived happily ever after. Boys are stupid! Except for Romeo, her Romeo, the real-life, living, breathing Romeo.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now. Still, she and her Romeo would never do that. Would never and would never have to.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now.

Life was funny, though. Or the universe had a perverse sense of humor.

She was hardly the first Juliet on The Globe to fall for a Romeo. She herself was the ninth-generation Juliet in her family. And it was said that on every block of Whitehall lived a Romeo, a Hamlet, and an Othello. Her older brother was an Othello.

Even so, she had promised herself she would never fall for a Romeo. It was so trite! So cheesy! A Romeo and a Juliet in love? Too easy to be a constant target of mockery. And, growing up, she never had to make herself promise not to fall in love with a Finsburian. No woman of Whitehall–or not one of standing, anyway–would be caught dead in Finsbury or give a clod-shoed Finsby a second of time. Clumsy, hulking, dirty farmers with cauliflower for brains. Those dirtwalkers didn’t appreciate the beauty of Whitehall’s crystalline towers and white ways. It’s customs and elevated manners. They didn’t appreciate Whitehall’s technological bounty. They dared to compare the value of their lowly vegetables with her father’s miracle machines.

Yet, Romeo was no hick and no fool. Yes, he was large. As tall as her father and twice as wide. Standing next to him was like standing next to a solid wall of muscle. Not that she was into big muscles or anything, but when he towered over her, his long brown curls brushing his broad shoulders …. She shivered at the thought.

She had to focus! She shook her head to clear it. She breathed in the cooling lake spray.

Her flare of rage at her parents had purged her twinge of guilt. They had done this! Not Romeo. Not she, Juliet. She had no desire to leave Whitehall. She loved her ancestral home, its culture and art, and most of all, its technology. Her love of machines and their secret languages was perhaps the one thing she and her father shared, besides DNA and a name.

But they had forced her hand. Her father especially. Her mother had sympathized. Had even pleaded in private with her husband, Escalus, the “King of Data Storage.” But when he said “No,” loudly enough for Juliet to hear him through doors that were supposed to be soundproof, her mother had caved. Worse, she had taken his side and tried to turn Juliet’s heart against Romeo. As if! 

Turn her heart against her fair Romeo? Her Romeo of the glinting green eyes? Bright green eyes flecked with gold so it appeared that the sun always shone in them, even in the dark, shady places where they escaped to kiss. A girl could happily lose her soul in those green eyes. Perhaps that is what had happened to Juliet. Perhaps she had lost her soul to Romeo. If so, she did it gladly. He could have it a hundred times over.

So she had chosen the night carefully. Her father was very busy with a large project. He often worked late, but a few nights ago he had told Mom he would be working overnight on this project. That’s when Juliet knew she had to make her break for it. By dawn, she and Romeo could be so far gone that no one in Whitehall or Finsbury could ever find them.

Most days, Juliet was allowed to come and go without supervision. As long as her grades were good, she could travel anywhere in Whitehall or on Lake Avon without a living escort. Of course, there were always safety and security drones everywhere, even in the sewers and beneath Lake Avon. And lifeguard drones hung discretely high in the sky over the lake, watching everyone with electronic eyes.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. Photo by Yusuf Evli.

She was even allowed to skim the lake in the middle of the night, if she liked–something none of her friends could do. As long as she earned good marks in school, her parents left her alone. And school wasn’t hard. She was smarter than most of her teachers. Like her father, study came easily to her, especially math and programming. And so she earned the highest marks and her parents got to brag about her achievements, as if they had had anything to do with it besides contributing the DNA.

Apparently the only thing she could not do was to see Romeo. Or any Finsby. Or have anything to do with Finsbury. And, right now, the only thing in the world worth doing was seeing Romeo. She had tried to resist him. She had tried to stay away. But she couldn’t. And when she saw his face again, after staying away a whole week, the sad look in his eyes hurt her doubly so.

She couldn’t stay away. She wouldn’t stay away. She was going to be with him, whatever it took.

She didn’t care about Finsbury. She didn’t care if the whole city–really just a noisy, smelly marketplace–and all the surrounding fields and farms burned in the fires of Belmont. All she cared about was that she was with Romeo. If that had to be in Finsbury, then so be it. She longed to be with him right now. Her Romeo of the broad shoulders and the lopsided grin.

Her stomach tingled as she envisioned that shy grin. And those full lips. Lips that kissed her beneath the tall trees of the Forest of Arden, the forest that formed the contested border between Whitehall and Finsbury. 

She cruised through the darkness with only the wind in her ears to mar the silence. The hover’s lights shining on the dark water ahead hypnotized her. In the near darkness, it was easy to imagine Romeo’s hair, his face, his shoulders. She eagerly looked forward to their first embrace in freedom. To watch his face lower towards hers. To feel his soft lips on her own.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. It was the first place after the headland that the high bank of the Elizabeth ran down to the water’s edge. The hover ran easily over the faintly glowing sands up to the tree line. The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden and followed a walking trail.

Soon, very soon, she would meet Romeo on the southern edge of the forest. There, beneath the moonlight, she would tell him of her plan. After a few kisses, of course. Her plan for both of them to keep traveling south, all the way to Newlondon. He was not welcome in Whitehall. And she would not be welcome in Finsbury. And they couldn’t survive long in the wilderness.

The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden. Photo by Gabrielle Mustapich.

She was carefully following the path and planning her speech to Romeo when she heard the low growl. She flicked off her lights and let the hover glide to a complete stop. In the darkness, she strained with her ears to hear the sound more clearly. It was the low, sexy growl of a heavy hover engine, not the sound of a beast. A beast would have been less frightening.

She knew that engine–it belonged to the 9NUS Lion–her father’s newest line of heavy-duty hovers. “The 9NUS Lion … goes as fast as you like it,” her father had said with a smirk.

The 9NUS could tow heavy loads. Or it could be plated with armor and loaded up with weaponry for police or military action. She knew Whitehall had bought the whole lot.

Juliet was a quick study and it took her only seconds to put it together. Whitehall was sending troops under cover of night to raid Finsbury! And before they reached Finsbury, they would reach the edge of the forest … where Romeo was waiting for her!

All her fears were confirmed when the first hover–covered in some type of camouflage–blew past her in the darkness.

Juliet gunned her thrusters.

Submit your story ending

I can’t wait to see your story endings! Don’t forget to read the contest rules.

Please post your story endings below. And if you just want to leave a comment, that would be great, too!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross