Behind the Scenes of “Transmutation”

Yay! My latest flash fiction story “Transmutation” is available to read for FREE only today on Havok’s website. It’s a short fantasy-mystery about an eccentric alchemist using her skills to shorten her dungeon sentence. If you’ve already finished it, here’s a little background on how I wrote it. (And if you haven’t read it yet and it’s any day after April 1, 2019, you can become a member for a very small fee to get access to it and all of Havok’s other stories!)

Similarly to “When Magic Died,” this story was written specifically for this month’s theme (reform) and the day’s genre (mystery). I had been thinking about incorporating alchemy for one of Havok’s earlier themes (recycle), but that ended up going nowhere. I decided to revisit the idea since one of medieval alchemy’s goals was to transform things into other things. But since I wasn’t sure if that would be a strong enough connection to “reform,” I also wanted to try to have a character change their ways. But I still wasn’t sure where the mystery element came in.

I thought about that part for a while. I didn’t feel confident trying to put all the mystery tropes in a flash fiction piece—I just wanted to treat it as the moment where a key clue is revealed. But how would it all tie together

I’m not ashamed to say it all fell in place while I was waking up one morning (get your sleep, kids!). Since a big part of medieval alchemy was trying to turn common metals into gold, I decided to use that to give the main character a criminal history. They would be imprisoned for using alchemy to pass their own gold off as official currency, but then called on to help solve a case involving alchemy of a far more nefarious sort.

I knew this backstory wouldn’t be a big part of the actual story’s plot (the reason for Ryla’s imprisonment/im-dungeonment only gets a passing reference), but I felt it did offer a starting point for the character to reform. I had a loose idea of the alchemist character uncovering a criminal plot to deconstruct … everything …. to rebuild it a new way. With this rough idea settled on, I felt like I had enough to start writing.

Up until this point, I hadn’t thought much about the alchemist’s character. I decided to make her a woman because I was really concerned about the story turning into an all boys’ club. (As it turned out, the other two, less interesting characters were both male, so I’d say this was the right choice.) But I also wanted to give her a unique personality to both a) clash with the more “professional” guardsmen/pseudo-detectives and b) bring a little more life into this search for clues.

I settled on a Jack Sparrow-type characterization, which mostly manifests in her dialogue. At first you don’t quite get her, but if you watch long enough, you see that her unpredictable attitude and esoteric plans do have a purpose. In my head, years of alchemy have left their mark on her, due to her experiments strengthening her connections to the core elements, but also driving her slightly insane and causing her to disassociate from the real world. It’s kind of the same way that hatmakers were affected by working with mercury, leading to the phrase “mad as a hatter.” … In fact, mercury was one of the elements that medieval alchemists often worked with. It’s all connected!)

With Ryla being brought to a investigation already underway, I needed to come up with a way for her to use alchemy to reveal a clue that the guards would have missed. And for the sake of word count, I needed it to be somewhat simple. This led me to lean into alchemy from the angle of the four elements, which is what fantasy typically focuses on when it introduces the subject.

This is how I came up with the idea of placing each of the elements at the corner of a page to reveal hidden writing. (Not mentioned in the story: every manuscript designed this way is treated to be fireproof, waterproof, and rot-proof—but other than that, they’re quite destructible!) I’ve never seen/read this done in stories related to alchemy before, so it seemed like a plausible “a-ha!” moment for the reader. But if you have seen it done, please let me know in the comments!

For better or worse, the segment of revealing the secret writing ended up using more words than I expected, which meant the first draft of this rushed to a) reveal what the mystery alchemist is up to and b) demonstrate Ryla’s reformation. In the rush, the story almost shifted to Desail as the main character, focusing on him becoming overwhelmed with learning about alchemy’s power and asking Ryla to help track the mystery alchemist down.

Ryla had a great line in this version after Desail asked her to help: “Is that even a question? Yes I’ll help you catch this loon and quite possibly save the world. I may be a fraudster, but I’m no sadist.” Classic Ryla. But the ending overall could be stronger, as editor Lisa Godfrees rightly pointed out in her feedback. She identified that the story needed to be more about what the mystery alchemist was up to, or Ryla’s reformation. With the word count, it’d be hard to do both.

Since the segment with the elements and manuscript took a good chunk of the word count, I concluded that the story was more about the mystery alchemist’s intentions than Ryla. So—in an effort to build tension—I shifted things around and had Ryla take longer to figure out exactly what the other alchemist was up to. I like to think there’s still an undercurrent of her reformation in the final story. But even if it’s not there, there’s still the reformation of the whole world to worry about!

Have any questions or comments about “Transmutation,” how it came together, or alchemy? Feel free to post below right here, or under the story on Havok’s website. And make sure you keep following them on social media or become a member for even more awesome flash fiction stories. Thanks for reading!

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!

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 🙂

Submissions Guidelines and Developing Stories

For the past week, I’ve been researching possible publications to submit a short story to. The most helpful website in finding publishers/markets that accept genre stories (science fiction/fantasy/etc.) has been Ralan.com, but just searching has also yielded a few possibilities.

This post, however, begs the question of whether I may be getting ahead of myself. You see … I haven’t actually written a new short story to submit to any of these publications. I’m mainly seeing what’s out there and reviewing their submission guidelines. And that’s making me (re)consider my current writing approach.

The reason? Nearly all the stories I’ve been writing recently have been based on provided themes. But as I research other publications, I’m finding a lot of options that give free rein (within the SFF space). This, in turn, means I’ll need to adjust how I end up writing this new story. Instead of getting ideas from (re)interpreting story prompts, the entire idea and its development are on me. Which is exciting! Yet also terrifying.

That’s not to say that these publications are entirely without guidelines. Most of them are extremely helpful in explaining what they’re looking for in stories (though the best way to figure that out is always to read past issues). And as you can imagine, writing a story based on what a publication likes to see increases its odds of being selected. Even if many of them don’t have specific themes, they do have certain elements that they’re looking for. If I write a new story with those notes in mind, it would likely perform better than a story written without such guidelines.

(It’s worth noting that this doesn’t refer to instructions about how to format or submit a story — those are set in stone to make things easy on editors. The “guidelines” I’m referring to here are broad notes about what kind of stories they do or don’t want to see.)

On top of all that, these publications have deadlines that are all over the place. Some are a week away. Others don’t close for a couple months. But if I start writing a story for a specific publication, you can bet I want to make sure I finish and submit it before the submissions period ends. Yet if I write a story without guidelines, there’s no telling when relevant submissions periods would be open to it.

It’s an almost paralyzing situation to be in — which is never good when your goal is to write as much as possible. I wonder if I’m putting too much pressure on myself to write something that gets selected. I need to remind that that’s a stretch goal, not a goal-goal.

At least I’m still writing blog posts, haha.

The Motivation of (External) Deadlines

If there’s one thing that my writing journey over the past year has taught me, it’s that deadlines are extremely useful. I think the only reason I’ve been able to finish writing ten stories in that timeframe is because they each had a submission deadline every month or so. Even most of the posts on this blog (including this one) can chalk up their publication to the fact that I’ve given myself a Wednesday deadline every week.

Of course, it’s not like deadlines were a foreign concept before last year. They’ve been a part of my day-to-day writing job as long as I’ve had one. And they’ve been super useful! But for better or worse, I find them considerably easier to meet than implement.

Part of the reason this is on my mind is because I’ve been working on a flash fiction story. I started writing about six weeks ago … and stalled soon afterward. But with the deadline approaching this Friday, I suddenly find myself with renewed inspiration.

Suffice it to say, the story is practically finished. But the situation paints other 2018 goals in a new light. I’m realizing the need to establish deadlines for the goals that don’t currently have them. But there are two issues standing in the way: 1) I don’t know what realistic deadlines would look like and 2) I’m not sure how I’d set them up as “external” deadlines.

I could pick an arbitrary date and post it here, but I question whether that’d be effective. So in lieu of establishing a deadline that way, I’m going to try to use the stories that have deadlines as deadlines themselves. In other words, the plan is to divide the short story/game (not sure which one first) development into segments and set a goal of completing those segments before submitting flash fiction pieces throughout the year.

Will it work? Maybe. At the very least it’s a plan and offers a similar sense of structure to what deadlines provide. I’ll try to keep you posted in these posts, including short updates in addition to the main content of each. So stay tuned and let’s see how this deadlines once-removed experiment works.