Behind the Scenes of “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend”

My latest story, “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend,” has been out for almost a week now (in print and on Kindle), so I thought this would be a good time to write a follow-up post about how it came together.

This was one of those rare prompts where I developed an idea pretty quickly. Especially because this was a contest issue, I knew I wanted to put a unique spin on the theme. The steampunk aesthetic jumped out to me, and I figured that would help the story stand out. After settling on the steampunk angle, a wild west setting seemed like a natural fit.

The theme also meant jumping into the action as quickly as possible. Readers don’t pick up a kaiju story looking for long soliloquies about where the monsters and robots came from—they want action! In my earlier beginnings, I tried introducing the exomaton through its inventor, or framing the story as a newspaper story. Ultimately, these (and a couple other starts) took too long to get to the actual fight between the exomaton and the monster. By shifting the perspective to one of the pilots, I felt more comfortable starting right as they’re all loading up to protect the town.

But even then, you’ll notice that describing the exomaton takes up a lengthy third paragraph. This description was one of the first things I wrote, and is largely similar to its original draft. Combined with the description of the ridgeshaker (which was also one of the first things I wrote), that’s about 120 words already accounted for.

After realizing this, I decided to not limit the story to <700 words. This is what I usually aim for since Splickety typically just acquires a couple stories longer than 700 words. But since this was a contest entry, I opted not to constrain myself if I thought it would make the story stronger.

The action of the story flowed naturally after getting to the battle. Rather than narrating the fight blow-by-blow, I focused on a few key moments to convey the idea of destruction without using too much word count. And even though the image of two giant beings fighting is really cool, I wanted the climax to be a more personal scene, which is why the main character is able to scare the ridgeshaker away with the steam. In another stroke of serendipity, the steampunk angle presented a great reason for the combatants to get stuck close together for a period of time.

In terms of names, “exomaton” is a riff on “automaton”—which has a loose steampunk connotation, but wouldn’t accurately describe something that needs to be piloted. “Exo” seemed like the perfect prefix to convey that people needed to be inside to run, but also provide a sense of scale. For a long time, the town had the placeholder name Golden Springs, but that felt way too tropey for a wild west town. After toying with the idea of the town being named after the panners who lived there rather than the gold they were finding, I settled on “Panner’s Bend.” Once both of these were settled, I put both in the title to clue readers into the fact that this wasn’t the usual kaiju setting.

And that’s how “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend” came to be! I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into how I wrote it—not to mention the story itself. If you have any other questions about the story (or the world it takes place in), feel free to ask in the comments!

“The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend” Published!

Yay! My latest flash fiction story, “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend,” has just been published in the latest issue of Havok. And since this is a contest issue, it means this is the first time one of my stories has been a writing contest finalist. Woohoo! Check it out here.

This month’s issue of Havok is called Rampage! Monsters Vs Robots. Think Pacific Rim or a Godzilla vs. Transformers crossover. But instead of setting it in the modern day or near-future, I wanted to explore how the prompt might look sometime in the past. What resulted is a pseudo-Weird West alternate history where pioneers have developed enormous steampunk robots piloted by volunteers to protect themselves from gargantuan monsters that roam the prairies. If you like action on a grand scale (… pun not intended), this story is for you. I really enjoyed writing it, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Get contest finalist “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend” and nine other epic kaiju stories in Havok’s July issue, available now!

Hard copy & digital: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1481066

Kindle edition: https://amzn.to/2NyssHs

Behind the Scenes of “Returning Home”

Last week, Splickety published my most recent flash fiction story “Returning Home” in their Heirs and Spares issue. If you haven’t read it yet, you can get a print or digital copy or check it out on Kindle. And as is my new tradition, this week I wanted to write a little behind-the-scenes post about writing it.

The moment I learned about this month’s theme (royal intrigue), I knew I wanted to put a unique spin on it. Also, based on feedback to my Splickety submission from a few months ago, I wanted to make sure I highlighted the main characters as teenagers (which seems to be a driving force of this year’s themes).

One thing that tripped me up early in the process was wondering whether I was supposed to invent royalty or take inspiration from historical figures. I thought it might be easy to see through something totally made up, so I opted to base it on real royalty. Since I expected many submissions would take place in white European settings (or at least be inspired by them), I wanted to set my story apart from the majority by staying away from that setting.

I’ve held a mild interest in Maya history/culture since visiting Guatemala with my family in high school. We lived with a host family on two separate occasions, and visited Tikal during both trips. And since I received good feedback on a story set in Maya culture last year, I thought it would be a good fit for this prompt. But that meant research.

In that vein, one of the first tidbits I learned while researching is the fact that “Maya”—rather than “Mayan”—is the right adjective to use. “Maya” is used when describing elements of their culture (Maya people, Maya history, etc.), while “Mayan” specifically refers to the language family. The more you know!

I started researching by trolling through Wikipedia for names of Maya rulers. (Don’t worry—real research does come into play later.) I figured I could get a feel for the royal dynamic in different Maya city-states and develop a short story about brothers conniving for the throne, or perhaps a forbidden love between members of rival kingdoms. This is where serendipity comes in.

While reading through articles, I learned about Dos Pilas and its relationship with Tikal. It was … complicated. Dos Pilas was a smaller settlement than Tikal, which was one of the powerhouses of its time. Its king claimed to be part of Tikal’s royal line, but its allegiance bounced between them and Calakmul (another major power) over the years.

If that doesn’t set the stage for royal drama, I don’t know what does.

The relevant information was scattered through a few different articles, but I pieced together the gist of Dos Pilas and Tikal’s relationship, the main players, and an inkling of what a short story could look like. At this point, I used Wikipedia’s references to track down Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin. It helped flesh out a few more details, gave more credibility to certain name translations, and generally bolstered my confidence that this story could work.

Not that “Returning Home” is 100% historically accurate. I definitely took liberties with Bajlaj Chan’s and Nuun Ujol’s ages to better fit with the teenage element, and there aren’t many details about why the two were at odds. Nevertheless, the broad strokes about the two of them being brothers and the contentious relationship between the sites do have a basis in history.

Speaking of the kingdoms, you’ll notice that neither Tikal, Dos Pilas, nor Calakmul get name-dropped in “Returning Home.” That’s because those are our modern names for the settlements. In the Mayan language, Tikal was likely called “Mutal” … at least until Dos Pilas was founded and began using the same name/emblem glyph. At this point, Tikal started being known as “Yax Mutal”—the first Mutal. Dos Pilas is a Spanish name meaning “Two Wells,” though it was probably known as Mutal in its heyday. To avoid the confusion of two locations named “Yax Mutal” and “Mutal,” I used this Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary website to create a name based on the Mayan words for two wells (“Kach’en”). Similarly, Ox Te’Tuun was the Mayan name for Calakmul. It was unfortunate that all these place names took twice the word count, so I tried to limit using them as much as possible! (That’s also why Nuun Ujol only calls his younger brother “Bajlaj” instead of his full name, Bajlaj Chan.)

The only other name in the story is Coyopa, which is taken from the Maya god of thunder. It seemed like an appropriate name for a loyal war general. Yajaw, which is mentioned a couple of times in the story, is the Mayan word for “vassal lord,” which I thought gave the story the right amount of additional flavor.

Once I had the setting and premise of the story, it came together quickly. Like “The Journal of Wonders,” I wanted dialogue to drive most of the story. I thought focusing on a time before the kingdoms officially turned on one another would allow the brothers to have the type of conversation that could reliably drive a story. Nuun Ujol needed to already be convinced that Bajlaj Chan wanted to usurp him, so I wanted this scene to focus on the younger brother’s realization that he was no longer welcome in Yax Mutal. I was pleasantly surprised with the way it came together allowing me to contrast Bajlaj’s definitions of “home” at the beginning and end of the story, giving the title a nice double-meaning.

There you have it! You can see from this post that a big chunk of this story was research and prep work, and it came together … comparatively quickly after those. You probably know more about Maya history now than you ever expected to learn, but I hope you still enjoyed reading about the process and maybe even had a few questions answered. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them below!

“Returning Home” Published!

Woohoo! My latest flash fiction story, “Returning Home,” was just published in Splickety’s June issue. Check it out here!

This month’s theme is “Heirs and Spares.” In other words, royal teenage drama. But in case you think you’ve read it all, perhaps you’d be interested to hear that this story is set in the classic Maya period—inspired by the story of the mysterious site of Dos Pilas breaking its alliance with the powerhouse of Tikal. It’s my most heavily-researched story to date, and I’m really happy with how it turned out!

If that intrigues you, you can read “Returning Home” along with ten other royal flash fiction stories in Splickety’s June issue! I’d love to hear what you think about it 🙂

Hard copy & digital: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1472873

Amazon Kindle: http://a.co/2XiMEQj

200 Word RPG: Among the Wreckage

I submitted my entry to this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge! It’s called “Among the Wreckage.” It takes place following a disaster caused by the “Faceless Beast” — which players can interpret as they see fit. Players basically draw from a scattered deck of cards and create stories based on the cards they reveal, though you should read the full rules on its page.

In writing this, I tried to key into the “new and overlooked stories” element of the judging criteria — and I think it pushed me to come up with a setting that I wouldn’t have originally considered. The Faceless Beast setup lends itself to a city of people rebuilding after a kaiju attack, but it could easily be reinterpreted/adapted to a more realistic setting if players prefer.

In terms of gameplay, I liked the tactile nature of scattering cards to represent disorder and wreckage, then having players slowly clear the space and provide order as they search for their goals. The player interaction component went through a few different iterations, but I think it ultimately turned out well.

All in all, I really enjoyed trying the challenge this year, and I’m planning on entering again next year! Writing game rules is definitely different from writing a story — especially if you only get 200 words. But it was a fun experience and I think I learned a little bit about creating games. If you happen to play “Among the Wreckage,” I’d love to hear what you think about it!

Writing a 200 Word RPG

Some time ago, I heard about the 200 Word RPG Challenge. The name is pretty much the concept—create an RPG in 200 words. I’ve never created an RPG before, but I wanted to give it a shot in between flash fiction pieces. And it’s opening up to entries in a little over a week!

The main purposes of the challenge are to encourage people to write a complete RPG and collect a variety of ideas for the community to build on. There’s also a competition component. To that point, entries will be judged based on actionable rules, new/overlooked stories, and engagement.

Of those, the second criteria is the one that stood out the most. Normally, I think I’d be inclined to write a more generic fantasy-adventure type RPG. But I like the fact that the contest encourages creators to expand into less common stories and settings.

All that said, the setting is probably what I’ve spent the most time thinking about. I have a draft, but with the contest opening to entries on May 18, there’s still plenty of time for revisions (whether they’re major overhauls or minor tweaks). But as it stands right now, I think the concept jives pretty well with the current game mechanics.

Which brings me to my second-most-thought-about-element: mechanics. (Otherwise known as how the game actually plays.) It’s not uncommon for tabletop RPGs to primarily use dice and character sheets. But in reading previous years’ entries, I really liked how these games (especially finalists) introduce other elements of gameplay, like playing cards, matches, or even paper towels. You want to use something that’s both common enough for people have on hand and also won’t use too much word count to explain.

Speaking of, I think that the 700 word limit I try to work with in writing flash fiction has been valuable training. But 200 words is still really short! And since it’s providing the framework for a game, it needs to set the stage concisely in terms of settings and characters while also explaining mechanics/rules just thoroughly enough for players to understand what to do.

At the same time, it take a little pressure off because it doesn’t need to include a scene with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s up to the players to create 🙂 But still, 200 words, man.

Anyway, that’s what I’m writing these days! Every entry will be published on the website after the contest is over, so I’ll be sure to share the link when it’s live. Think this is something you’d ever be interested in trying?

Getting GDPR Compliant

If you’ve been following digital privacy news lately, you’ve probably heard of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and know that it’s going into effect. I’m loosely aware of it, but understand enough to know that it affects both websites of organizations based in the EU and websites that collect info from EU citizens.

But wait! This does in fact have something to do with writing (a little). Because this blog is both a record and instrument of my adventures in writing, I think it’s appropriate to write about any and all topics that affect this journey.

That sentence should make it clear that I’m not a lawyer or digital privacy expert—so don’t read this as legal advice or a guide to best practices. It’s just what I’m doing to try to make sure this blog complies with international law.

Note that I’m not trying to be dramatic! These regulations are primarily about the information websites collect from/about visitors, so I believe they were largely written with big organizations and social media in mind. On this blog, I’m not aiming to collect a ton of information—just share this adventure and the occasional insights with those who are interested.

But.

The Internet is all about data. By simply visiting, your device is sharing your IP address with the server hosting this website. And while I personally don’t do anything with that data, the GDPR still regulates how it can be used (and what EU citizens can do with it). You can read all of that on the official website.

Right now, the blog/I only collect data when someone posts a comment. Before you post, you’re required to input a name and email address (and optionally, a website). When you do, that data gets stored in order to show the comment (your name gets displayed above your comment—your email doesn’t). With GDPR, you as a commenter would need to explicitly give the blog/me consent to store that data (such as checking a checkbox that grants permission).

Posting a comment seems like an obvious example of someone granting permission at first, but you may not realize that your email remains stored, and is associated with that comment. GDPR is meant to offer users more transparency and control when it comes to that kind of data, so you can decide how it gets used.

For example, down the line, I’m thinking of creating a newsletter mailing list. With GDPR in effect, everyone I put on that list would need to give explicit permission, confirming that they’re signing up to receive those kinds of emails. I couldn’t, for example, create some sort of giveaway asking for email addresses, and then proceed to email those people my newsletter. Or go through a list of comments on this blog and add all the email addresses of commenters (not that I would do that). And when people sign up and grant permission to use their emails for just that newsletter purpose, I couldn’t turn around and sell that list to another party (again, not that I would do that in the first place).

Things like buying and selling mailing lists and using giveaways to collect people’s information are common marketing tactics. But the digital environment has exponentially increased the number of entities who have access to that information—and therefore, the number of ways it could be accessed by parties who don’t have permission to use it.

The official GDPR website says, “​The aim of the GDPR is to protect all EU citizens from privacy and data breaches in an increasingly data-driven world …”. All this may be inconvenient (and boring (and inconsequential for a small-time writer’s blog)), but ultimately, it’s meant to help all of us (well . . . people in the EU) secure the digital parts of our lives. I don’t think I even have EU visitors, but I’m on board with the underlying principles.

So. What am I going to do about it? Well, I need to create a privacy policy that explains how I use visitors’ data. I’m also trying to find a WordPress plugin that lets commenters know the site will store some of their data. And going forward, I’ll be sure to be super clear if the newsletter mailing list ever comes to fruition (not to mention continue to monitor relevant sites for more information on how these regulations *specifically* impact bloggers).

Note: James T. Kelly’s posts “GDPR for Indie Authors” and “My GDPR Journey” were an immensely helpful resource in researching/navigating this topic. Thanks, James!

Writing Sword of the Stones

In case you missed the news last week, my most recent story “Sword of the Stones” was published in Havok’s latest issue. Get a print copy here or check it out on Kindle. Today, I wanted to share a little background info on its creation.

First off, since I knew I wanted to submit a story to Havok’s Extraordinary Exploits issue, I started with the prompt. I latched onto the examples of Indiana Jones and The Librarian. But, as is usually the case, my first few ideas looked very different from the final story.

One idea was to submit a story that read like an artifact retrieval form. It would include stats like where a certain relic was recovered and what properties it possessed, as well as a brief report of how it had been retrieved. Another idea began with a teenage boy cleaning out his grandmother’s attic, then finding a hatching dragon egg. But when I got into writing both of them, I realized that it was taking way too long to get to the action.

So I started brainstorming ideas of how to get straight to the action—as well as what kind of relic would lend itself to the pseudo-supernatural element of the prompt. I decided the best place to start would be literally seconds before retrieving the artifact, which would in turn activate some sort of (again, supernatural) defense system that would try to prevent the adventurer from escaping. (It should also be noted that, in my head, the main character is known only as “The Adventurer,” and doesn’t have a real name.)

That was when I had a mental image of an angel statue perched on top of a building, holding a sword while lighting flashed around. Those first few paragraphs went through quite a few revisions as I tried to balance scene-setting with action (and a little humor/sarcasm).

Funnily enough, the sword originally was the main relic—and would’ve been a lot more effective against the gargoyles. But the more I thought about it, “able to defeat animated stone” felt like a really random power, and wouldn’t be very useful in other scenarios. That got me thinking about what would be a cool supernatural ability bestowed by an artifact. Wings and flight seemed like a natural answer given the angel statue, and so the medallion worked its way into the story.

It wasn’t until after I started writing the animated gargoyles that I realized they are an unintentional callback to a short story I wrote in college. Something about those monstrous faces and the notion of living rock just strikes me as sinister. Technically, these ones are probably grotesques or chimeras because “gargoyle” specifically refers to carved spouts that carry water away from buildings, but I elected to keep the term “gargoyle” because it’s the one that most people are familiar with for what I was trying to get across.

Half by virtue of the sword losing its abilities, and half due to rapidly shrinking available wordcount, the fight on the roof ended up being shorter than I had first envisioned. I would’ve liked an epic battle on the monastery roof between Adventurer and gargoyle as lightning flashed and thunder roared, but by the time he picked himself up from the fall, I realized that the story needed to start wrapping up. I was happy to get that epic leap from the roof timed perfectly with a lightning strike. In the movie version, that scene is in slow-mo.

For the ending, it’s worth noting that my first draft was a couple sentences longer. I wanted to bring a sense of completion into the story, and I did that through a brief exchange of the duo talking about their next course of action (and the Adventurer thanking Veronica for saving his life). But when my brilliant wife/first editor read it for the first time, she pointed out that the story ended just fine with the “You got the short straw of artifacts this time” comment. Realizing that she was right (as usual), I removed the dialogue for an even shorter word count! Plus, I think the way it draws attention back to the relics gives the story a better sense of completion.

And those are the main points I remember from writing the story. I hope you enjoyed this look behind the scenes of “Sword of the Stones”! Just in case it didn’t come across, I had a blast writing the story—and I hope you enjoy(ed) reading it! Have any other questions about how it came together? Or about my writing process in general? Feel free to ask in the comments 🙂

Sword of the Stones Published!

Exciting news! Havok has published my latest flash fiction piece “Sword of the Stones” in their latest issue! You can check it out here!

This month’s theme/prompt was “Extraordinary Exploits.” Think Indiana Jones, Warehouse 13, The Librarian, or other adventure stories with some supernatural elements thrown in.

I’m really excited to be part of this issue. This genre is right up my alley, so I was super pumped when I got the news that my story was accepted. I think you’ll like it if you’re a fellow fan of action/adventure stories with a dash of magic and/or sci-fi—plus, you’ll get nine other stories also in the same genre (all of which are a blast, but I must give a special shout out to the cleverness of “First Contact”). If you do check it out, I’d love to hear what you think!

Once more for SEO: Read “Sword of the Stones” today!

Hard copy & digital: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1441511

Amazon Kindle: http://a.co/6DuPj1D

Some of My Favorite Graphic Novels

A few months ago I shared a few of my favorite books. But one thing you may not have guessed from that list is that I also happen to be a bit of a graphic novel fan. There’s something about seeing the story visually come to life in front of you that makes you experience the story in a new way — and it’s cool to see a variety of art styles across the graphic novel genre, much like authors have their own voices. It gives you a reason to slow down and appreciate the craft that went into creating the art. So in no particular order and with the caveat that this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some of my favorite graphic novels.

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. I don’t remember how I first heard about this book, but I’m really glad I did. It tells the story of a boy with diabetes who gets transported into a fantasy world during one episode when his blood sugar drops. The story bounces back and forth between his quest to defeat King Death in the fantastic world and his attempt to raise his blood sugar level in the real world. This sets up some really cool parallels between both worlds, like his pet rat becoming his anthropomorphic warrior-rat companion in the fantasy world. These cool insertions and imaginative illustrations combine to make an awesome portal fantasy.

reMIND by Jason Brubaker. This began as a webcomic, so I first read it online (where it’s still available to read for free). Putting aside the fact that Brubaker using the blog format to both host the webcomic and chronicle his journey in publishing reMIND is awesome itself, the volumes also tell an engaging story. Though it begins with a normal girl living in and maintaining a lighthouse, it soon introduces a talking cat, lizard-men, and an underwater kingdom to create a story much larger than what you see on the surface. This quirkiness is complemented by a unique art style that blends Brubaker’s background in storyboarding with textured colors, and was designed from the ground up to play with different ways of filling the pages.

Bone by Jeff Smith. This is probably on more than a few top 10 graphic novel lists, and it’s easy to see why. The story begins with the antics of a trio of cartoony brothers getting lost and gradually but consistently growing in scope until it becomes an epic. After getting separated, the brothers begin exploring a secluded valley, meeting its inhabitants, and discovering that life there may not be as idyllic as it originally seems. It has just the right mix of humor, adventure, drama, suspense, and romance, and Smith’s smooth illustrations demonstrate what a labor of love it was for him to craft it from beginning to end.

Mouse Guard (series) by David Petersen. I think the first book in this series (Fall 1152) is what first got me into graphic novels. In this world, mice live in a pseudo-medieval civilization, and are protected by the Mouse Guard, who are essentially knights who travel the land to protect villages and travelers from threats. The story of the first entry begins with a patrol out on a mission where they soon discover that the Mouse Guard itself may have threats of its own to worry about. Each entry develops the world even further, introducing different elements of life in the mice’s world. This setup, combined with Petersen’s wood-engraving-esque style of illustration and the square format of the books, make this a really unique series of graphic novels.

Rust (series) by Royden Lepp. One of the advantages of graphic novels is the ability to read them without technically reading words. Rust is probably the best example of that that I’ve read. The series follows a farm family who takes in a strange boy with a jetpack after he protects them from a massive, violent robot. But while he’s trying to keep his past a secret, others are doing everything they can to uncover it. It’s set in a alt-history world where robots and steampunk-esque technology aren’t out of place on sprawling farms and prairies, but the sepia-toned artwork helps it all to feel timeless. And Lepp isn’t afraid to let that art tell the story by itself. Action scenes in particular can go on for pages without word bubbles interrupting them, allowing this graphic novel to really play up what makes this medium so special.

Again, these are just a few of my favorite graphic novels — and I’m always looking for new ones! Do you have any suggestions?