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’s the Inside Scoop on the January Contest winner

I loved Frasier Armitage’s ending to my flash fiction story, “The Lost Cadet.” It literally gave me goosebumps as I read it for the first time.

I was reading along, not even halfway through the finish, and I thought, “Yes, this is good! This story is worthy of being a winner!”

As I was setting up the page–I have to create a new blog post for the complete, winning story–I was in such a good mood. Was it because I love editing and fixing the space marks? No. I do enjoy editing, but not that much.

I took a seven-minute break–yes, I timed it–to unload the dishwasher. Because real life seeps in through the seams of our best fictional lives no matter how much we caulk them. I found myself singing “Let the Good Times Roll” by the Cars.

“Let the good times roll. Let good times ro-ooll! Let the GOOD … TIMES … ROLL!”

My grandmother, Eloise, used to say you can always tell a man is in a good mood when he’s whistling. I’ve found that to be true of men and women and equally true of whistling, singing or even just humming.

So, Frasier, thanks so much for giving a great ending to the January Contest story! Let the good times roll!