Aeryn’s Archives: The Lost Cistern of Aravek

In this week’s installment of Aeryn Archives we journey to the scorched world of Athas and the first Dark Sun adventure I wrote for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, “The Lost Cistern of Aravek”. I’ve been a fan of this particular campaign setting for twenty-five years and the chance to write official material for it is one of the highlights of my tabletop RPG career.

Cover Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

So what is Dark Sun and why is it cool? Way back in 1991, TSR, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons at the time, were releasing scads of campaign settings, boxed worlds with various flavors you could set your D&D game in. One of those campaign settings took place on the scorched, post-apocalyptic planet of Athas, a brutal desert world where metal was scarce, water scarcer, and everyone and everything was out to kill (and usually eat) you. It was a huge departure from the standard fantasy settings that had come before it both in tone and lethality, and I fell head-over-heels in love with it.

Fast forward to 2010. I’d been working with Wizards of the Coast as a freelance game designer, and I’d written a handful of adventures and articles for Dungeon and Dragon magazines. One day, in February of that year, I got an email from Chris Perkins, then Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast. (Chris is still there, by the way, and still doing all kinds of cool stuff with D&D). In the email, Chris said he’d been talking to Chris Youngs, who ran D&D Insider, and whom I’d been working with for Dungeon and Dragon articles. My name came up as a possible fit for a freelance assignment that would be part of the 4E launch of the Dark Sun campaign setting. Chris Perkins offered me the assignment, and, well, I was over the fucking moon. I mean, the chance to work on Dark Sun, the campaign setting I’d loved for 20 years? Yes, please!

The assignment was to write a short 16-page Dark Sun adventure which would be released as part of D&D Game Day, an annual promotional event where WotC supplied game stores with a special adventure and pre-generated characters to run in-store. Chris Perkins gave me the basic details for what they wanted and then let me come up with a story outline. The idea I came up with was fairly simple and focused on one of the main problems players face in Dark Sun: water scarcity. Essentially, the players are hired to track down some ancient wind-trap technology that could solve a lot of the water issues in the area. Of course, this is Dark Sun, so that technology is guarded by terrible monsters, coveted by merciless brigands, and generally incredibly damn dangerous to find, But, hey, that’s what makes it fun! Long story short, I wrote the outline based around the premise above, it was approved with a few tweaks, and then I wrote the adventure that became “The Lost Cistern of Aravek.” It would be the first of two Dark Sun adventures I would write. The other, “The Vault of Darom Madar,” was released in an issue of Dungeon magazine (we’ll cover that one too at some point).

You’ll notice I’m not providing a link so you can go buy this adventure. That’s because “The Lost Cistern of Aravek” was a Game Day adventure and a special giveaway, so it was never for sale and as a result it’s kind of rare. I see it go for around seventy-five bucks on Ebay from time to time. That’s pretty neat, and I’m so glad I held on to my authors copies (still in the shrinkwrap). 🙂

2016: A Writing Rearview Review

And that’s a wrap on 2016, some might say mercifully so. As for how 2016 treated me and my writing career, I would rate the year as “not too shabby.”

Let us now turn to a whole bunch of stats because they are the super-duperest, most fun thing ever. Full disclosure: I love stats. It’s a personal failing, I know.

Fantasy/Horror/Sci-Fi Submissions

Total Submissions Sent: 54*

Better than last year but not nearly as many as I would have liked. The biggest reason I didn’t get as many short story submission out there is pretty easy to figure. I was writing novels for a lot of the year, the first of which was published in 2016. That ate a lot of writing time with, uh, more writing. Anyway, not too bad.

Acceptances: 9

Okay, this is a better number, and it’s almost double what I did last year. I also increased my acceptance ration from 13% to 17%, a number I hope to raise even further in 2017.

Form Rejections: 29

I actually received more form rejection than last year, but since I primarily submitted to top-tier markets in 2016, that’s not too bad. In addition, I received a number of higher-tier form rejections from this publications, which tells me I’m getting closer to an acceptance (I hope).

Personal Rejections: 10

About the same number of these as last year. A number of these were for stories for which I received a further consideration letter but the publisher ultimately decided to pass. Disappointing, but still a step in the right direction.

Never Responded/Withdrawn: 1

Just one of these in 2016, and it was because the publication went out of business. Disappointing because the story was short-listed. Oh, well; it’s a tough ol’ market out there for small genre zines.

*I still have five submission pending, so percentages are based on the submissions that have received a response.

Privateer Press

I still write a bunch for Privateer Press, and here’s what I did in 2016.

Novels: 1.3

I finished one novel in 2016 for Privateer Press, Acts of War: Flashpoint, which was published in July. I’m currently writing another one, Acts of War II, and I’m blogging my progress as I go along. You can see those blog posts right here.

Novellas: 1

I wrote one novella for Privateer Press that I can’t talk about yet because it’s still going through revisions. I’ll have more info on that soon.

Short Stories: 4

I wrote four short stories for Privateer Press in 2016, one of which was published in No Quarter magazine, and three others that were part of an introductory product for Privateer’s primary game lines WARMACHINE and HORDES.

Articles: 4

I also penned four articles for No Quarter Magazine, which is about par for the course. All of these were about the Iron Kingdoms setting.


Lastly, there’s this blog itself, and 2016 was my first full year of blogging. I couldn’t quite keep up with three posts per week like I had initially set out to dao, but I was routinely able to put out two posts. I learned a lot this year about the kinds of things folks like to read and the kinds of things they’re unlikely to read. One thing that will change in 2017 is the amount of self-promotional posts on the blog. I won’t go crazy, but I’ve got some big projects this year I want to talk about in addition to the usual rejectomancy stuff.

Here are the raw stats for the blog.

  • Total Posts: 88
  • Total Visitors: 7,816
  • Total Likes: 646
  • Total Comments: 470

I didn’t write that many more posts than I did in 2016, and I think I likely should have done a few more. Again, the novels ate into my writing time, but that’s not a great excuse. This year, I’d like to get those numbers up and hit at least 10k visitors.


Here’s what my total output for 2016 looked like in hard numbers. It’s less than last year for a number of reasons, but I’m not too unhappy. Like last year, I’m only counting stuff I wrote that was either published or is slated for publication.

  • Words Written: 194,250
  • Articles/Stories/Novels Published: 19

2017 Goals

I’m not going to go into too much detail here because my goals basically amount to write and publish more stuff. Here’s a couple of things, though.

  • Write more stories, submit more stories, and get more stories accepted.
  • Write three novels: two novels for Privateer Press and one novel for my agent to shop (my own IP).
  • Blog more. More promotional posts and more rejectomancy/writing posts.

2016 Free-to-Read Published Stuff 

If you’d like to have a look at some of the things I published this year, here are some links to short stories you can read (or listen to) for free.

And that, friends and colleagues, was my 2016 in the wild world of freelance writing. How was your year? Tell me about it in the comments.

My Meandering Path to Writerly “Fame and Fortune”

One of things people ask me on a fairly regular basis, more so lately, is how did you get started with writing and editing, and how did it end up being your “job?” Well, my career trajectory has been kind of all over the damn place, and there really isn’t a straight line between Point A (non-writer) to Point B (writer). So, I’ll try and sum it up here. Despite the title of this post (which is most definitely tongue firmly lodged in cheek), I am NOT trying to tell you I’m some kind of hit-shit famous writer, because I certainly am not that.

Okay, here goes. (FYI, this is gonna be long, and it’ll really test your endurance for my particular brand of “wit.”)

Let’s get the cliché stuff out of the way first. Yes, I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a wee lad. My first memories of trying to write are from when I was five or six. I would grab these big reference books on marine biology or dinosaurs (my two favorite subjects at the time), open them up to a random page, and then start copying the text onto a piece of notebook paper. I’d usually get a couple of paragraphs done in my huge, shaky five-year-old handwriting, not having clue one what the fuck I was actually writing, then run off to display my authorial prowess to my mother. Mom did not think she had a marine paleontological prodigy on her hands, but she did get what I was doing, and encouraged my interest in writing from early on.

Okay, jumping forward a lot. I started dabbling with poetry in my teens, writing angsty rhyming verse about dragons and demons and vampires throughout my junior and senior years in high school. This evolved into something a bit more marketable (i.e., not total shit) in a few years, and I sent out my first poetry submissions in my early twenties. I promptly collected my first rejections letters, but I kept at it, and I eventually got some of my poems published in a few zines here and there. Sadly, those publications are lost to history—I lost my contributor copies and every single magazine that published me folded a long time ago. I know that kinda sounds like, “Yeah, I totally published all the poems in magazine, but they’re all in Canada, and you probably haven’t heard of them.” Sorry.

The poetry muse left me in my mid-twenties—I still don’t now why—and I really didn’t start writing again until I was nearly thirty. I started writing again because I had become enamored of the newest edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game (3E for my fellow gamers out there). The new rules set allowed for a lot of customization, and better yet, the publisher of D&D, Wizards of the Coast, had created something called the Open Gaming License. I won’t bore you with the details, but the OGL basically allowed third-party publishers (and individuals) to create and sell material for the game.

Anyway, I really liked making monsters, and I especially liked taking existing monsters and making them unique in some way (again, for my fellow nerds, I was really into the templates that 3E introduced). I started adding little stories to my monstrous creations and then posting the whole thing on the forums of a popular D&D website called EN World. This eventually grew into full blown short stories and even novel-length creations, and I gained a bit of a following there.

Turns out, it wasn’t just fellow gamers reading my stuff on the EN World forums; a couple of publishers had taken an interest in my stuff too. These publishers included Skeleton Key Games and Goodman Games. I was offered some writing and editing gigs, working on various D&D-related projects. That started my career as a freelance game designer/editor/writer in the tabletop gaming industry, and I did that for a couple of years. My biggest publications during that time were with Wizards of the Coast in Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and it was pretty damn cool (and kind of a dream of mine) to get published by the folks that created the “official” version of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

Eventually, I parlayed my freelance gigs into a fulltime writing and editing position with Goodman Games, a company I’d done a lot of freelance work for. While with Goodman Games, my duties included running an in-house gaming magazine called Level Up, where I learned a lot of valuable skills. As luck would have it, my experience with Level Up prepared me for the next big step in my career.

In early 2009, I was laid off from Goodman Games as a fulltime employee (the RPG market had taken a real nosedive at that point), and I went back to freelance writing and editing. Those were lean times, let me tell you, and sometimes I wonder how the hell I survived. But one of the great things about the tabletop gaming industry is that it’s close-knit, and if you have some skill and experience and conduct yourself like something resembling a professional, one of your pro friends might think of you when a job opens up somewhere.

In early 2010, I got a call from Ed Bourelle, a guy I’d worked with off and on for years, and we’d grown pretty chummy. The year before he’d taken a position with Privateer Press, a tabletop miniature company that produced the award-winning games WARMACHINE and HORDES. Turns out, they had an in-house magazine called No Quarter that was in need of an editor-in-chief. Ed knew I’d done a similar a gig with Goodman Games, although on a smaller scale.

Ed asked me if a) I would be interested in the position, and b) could I come out to Seattle to interview. I think my answer to both questions was something like “Are you fucking kidding?! Please, say you’re not kidding.” The wife and I were living in my home town of Modesto at the time, and we were not exactly loving it. The prospect of an exciting new job in an exciting new city was just what the doctor ordered. Anyway, I flew out to Seattle, interviewed, and was offered the position, which I immediately accepted.

I served as the editor-in-chief for No Quarter magazine for three years, and I learned A LOT about editing and writing from the fantastic editors and writers at Privateer Press, folks like Darla Kennerud, Douglas Seacat, and Privateer Press owner and CCO Matt Wilson. That was a cool fucking job. Running a magazine is challenging, but it is never, ever boring. Every issue brings new obstacles to overcome and new accomplishments to achieve. You learn to think outside the box and get things done FAST. The Deadline is your unforgiving deity, and you must do all in your power to appease this hungry god.

In 2013, I became the publications manager for Privateer Press’ new fiction imprint, Skull Island eXpeditions, serving in a capacity that combined managing editor and acquisitions editor. Heading up Skull Island eXpeditions was a fantastic experience, and I had the amazing opportunity to work with some of the best fantasy writers in the business, as well as hone my own editorial skills.

Throughout my time at Privateer Press, I was writing a lot. I contributed fiction to No Quarter magazine and to the various core books for Privateer’s premier miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES. In addition, I was working hard on my own stuff, writing and submitting short stories to various horror and fantasy magazines. As much as I loved working at Privateer Press and running Skull Island eXpeditions, I really wanted to make writing my full time gig, so, in 2015, I took my shot and resigned from Privateer Press. Of course, my relationship with Privateer Press and owner/chief creative officer Matt Wilson didn’t end there. Privateer Press signed me to write a bunch of novels for them in their Iron Kingdoms universe, a setting with which I had become intimately familiar over the last five years. To say I was thrilled for that opportunity is the understatement of the century, and I’m super excited about the release of my first novel Acts of War: Flashpoint in June.

So, that takes me up to the present. Writing is now my fulltime occupation, and I’m working on novels for Privateer Press, writing horror short stories to submit to the many online zines and even a few print magazines, and I still do the occasional RPG and gaming project. If you’d like to see some of the stuff I’ve written over the years, there’s a fairly complete list of my writing and editorial credits on this blog.

There you have it, a stumbling, fumbling, meandering, sometimes ass-backwards path to the glories of writing for a living. Maybe you’ll find something of use here, but please note, I sure as shit don’t mean this to be a roadmap to a career in writing.

If you’d like to share your own tales of wonder and woe in the writing world, have at it. I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Rejection Letter Rundown: The Shortlist Rejection

Sometimes you have to wait a while for a publisher to get back to you about a submission, which can be hard, but it’s just one of those things you have to accept as part of the whole being a writer thing. That said, when you have good reason to hope your story will be accepted, the waiting can become rather nail-biting and the possible rejection all the more disappointing. Today’s rejection letter du jour is the shortlist rejection, which is a whole process that begins with an encouraging note like this.

“XXX” has been accepted into our final round of consideration. We will be letting you know before the end of April whether or not it is accepted.

What we have here is a further consideration letter, which is always a good thing. It says the publisher liked your story, and you’ve got at least a fifty-fifty shot at an acceptance. I appreciate these largely because they often come from markets that can take a while to get back to you, so it’s nice to get some notification that a decision is in the works. Now, of course, getting a letter like this is no guarantee of publication, because it might eventually result in a letter like the following.

Thanks so much for letting us consider your story “XXX.” While it made it to the final round of consideration, I’m afraid that we chose not to accept it. We had a lot of submissions and there were difficult decisions to be made. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Ouch. Bummer, right? So my story was under consideration for about three months before they decided to pass on it. I’m not angry or anything—this is all part of the writing gig—and I have no doubt my story was up against some stiff competition. So, what’s the takeaway from a rejection letter like this? It’s pretty simply really. I got close. The story got close. To my mind, it means the story is pretty good the way it is, and that I should send it out to another publisher right away, which is exactly what I did. If this publisher liked it enough to strongly consider it for publication, the next one might like it even more and publish it right off the bat. We’ll just have to see.

Have you had any experiences with the short list rejection? Tell me about it in the comments.

March 2016 Submission Statement

I was unable to follow up on February’s success in March, and all my stats are down. That said, my flagging production was for a good cause. I spent most of March finishing and revising my first novel for Privateer Press, due out this summer. Anyway, here’s how the month broke down.

March Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 3
  • Rejections: 2
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Other: 0
  • Publications: 1

The Rejections

Rejection’s first. There’s only two this time.

Rejection 1: 3/12/16

Thank you for submitting to XXX. We have decided not to publish your piece, “XXX”. Some reader comments:

“Although the idea is interesting, it starts slowly and doesn’t end with any closure. I don’t see a full story here.”

“I found the first sentence ungainly. This scene gives no indication of something I can take away (other than ‘the bad thing kills people and goes away to kill more’). I needed the kind of content and context which would make these happenings important to me.”

“The story isn’t complete.”

“Didn’t hook me in, and didn’t pace quickly enough for a flash, in my opinion. I didn’t feel I really got to know these characters enough to invest in what’s going on here (they were fairly stock to me; types, not individuals). This reads more like a solid excerpt from a commercial novel more than a flash. Not really my cup of tea.”

“I’d have liked this a lot more if there were an explanation to what the “fire” is. It’s an interesting enough premise, but it feels incomplete to me.”

Best of luck, and please feel free to submit to us again in the future.

That’s a long one, eh? It’s a type of rejection I call the multi-reader rejection, and there’s some pretty good feedback in here. I covered this rejection and the multi-reader rejection letter earlier this month in this post.

Rejection 2: 3/30/16

Thank you for submitting “XXX.” Unfortunately, this didn’t quite work for me, so I’m going to pass this time.

This is your common, garden-variety form letter. It’s from a market I’ve submitted to once before (with the same result). I think it bears repeating that you should not read anything into a letter like this because it doesn’t tell you anything (other than no). There’s no point in overanalyzing phrases like “didn’t quite work for me” because they are essentially meaningless without further details. So, this is a letter you let roll off your back while you fire that story off to another publisher.

The Publications

So, only one other thing of note this month. I had a reprint story published with Digital Fiction Pub called “Night Walk.” You can read it by clicking the link below.

Read “Night Walk”

And that, folks, was my March 2016. What did yours look like?

My Merciless Masters at No Quarter Magazine

As some of you may know, I do a lot of work for Privateer Press, a tabletop gaming company responsible for the award-winning fantasy miniature games WARMACHINE and HORDES. Privateer is also my former employer, and one my positions there was editor-in-chief of their in-house magazine No Quarter. The magazine is now in the very able hands of my former colleague Lyle Lowery, and, since he’s such a nice guy, he lets me write for the magazine on a pretty regular basis.

The most recent issue of No Quarter features an article of mine called “Guts & Gears: Blind Walker.” The Guts & Gears series is kind of like an encyclopedia entry for the strange and terrible monsters and machines that inhabit the Iron Kingdoms, the setting for the WARMACHINE and HORDES games. The one I wrote for this issue is about a giant, bipedal gator monster augmented by terrible necromantic rituals to serve its reptilian masters. Here are the covers of the last two issues I worked on (including the most recent).

NQ65 Cover WBC   NQ 63

For over ten years No Quarter magazine has provided the Privateer Press community with a wealth of informative articles, top-notch fiction, and sneak previews into upcoming developments in Privateer’s many award-winning games. The magazine, of course, holds special significance for me since I guided its course for three years. It was one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs I’ve held. One of these days I’ll write about my experiences running No Quarter. The uncompromising schedule of a magazine is a terrifying but educational experience for anyone who wants to work in a creative field.






Writing for Dollars: 4 Tiers of Freelance Payment

Getting published usually means getting paid for your work. Getting paid is a good thing, even if you’re “not doing it for the money.” At the very least, it’s some validation your writing is actually worth something. To further illustrate my feelings on the subject, I’ll quote one of my favorite authors again:

 “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

— Stephen King

Note, all the info I’m going to present in this post is based on my experience publishing short stories in the genre market. It may not apply to the literary or the non-fiction markets, so if you write in either of those, this post may be of dubious value to you. Just saying.

How much you get paid when publishing short stories in the genre fiction market depends, of course, on where you publish. Some publishers pay nothing, some pay a little, and some pay all the way up to 10 cents per word and more. As you can imagine, it’s tougher to get published by the guys paying 10 cents per word.

From my experience, there are four basic tiers of payment in the genre market: exposure only, token, semi-pro, and professional. Only the first and last are clearly defined. The two in the middle are a bit of a mixed bag.

  • Exposure Only: These publications pay nothing. Some might send you a print or digital contributor copy, but many don’t, so it really is nada. The vast majority of small online fiction zines fall into this category, and a quick search at Duotrope reveals that nearly 50% of the markets that publish short horror fiction, for example, are exposure-only markets.
  • Token Payment: Just like it sounds, these markets pay a very small amount. In my experience, this is often not a per-word rate; it’s a flat fee somewhere between five and fifteen bucks. It’s important to note that fifteen bucks for a 1,000-word flash story works out to about 1.5 cents per word, which is semi-pro payment. In other words, some of these token markets technically pay semi-pro rates if the story is short enough.
  • Semi-Pro Payment: Okay, now we’re starting to hit the money, relatively speaking. The definitions I’ve seen usually define semi-pro payment at 1 cent per word to 5 cents per word. There are quite a few semi-pro markets that pay toward the lower end of that scale, usually 1 cent per word. Pro-paying markets might also pay semi-pro rates for reprints, which is something I’ve seen from time to time.
  • Pro Payment: Now we’re in the big time. This category is probably the best defined because well-respected professional writer organizations, like the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America), have set a minimum amount a publication must pay to be considered a qualifying professional market, meaning if you get published there it counts a qualifying publication for membership in the SFWA. Anyway, that minimum payment is 6 cents per word, and as you can guess, there aren’t many markets that pay that much, and those that do are tough to crack. Two pro markets I’ve been trying to break through with for some time are Daily Science Fiction and Clarkesworld, which pay 8 cents and 10 cents per word, respectively.

Now that we’ve talked about what you might get paid, let’s talk about how you might get paid. Many semi-pro and pro markets are quite happy to send you a check, but nearly all the token markets and quite a few of the semi-pro markets prefer PayPal. In fact, some will only pay you through PayPal. So, if you don’t have a PayPal account, get one. It’s free, it’s not difficult to set up, and you can often use PayPal funds like a debit card or simply transfer the money into your bank account (though it takes like five business days).

You should also keep track of how much you’re getting paid, via a spreadsheet or accounting software. If you make over $400.00 in a year as a freelance writer, you have to claim that on your taxes, so you should definitely keep track. I’m not a CPA, so you shouldn’t take anything I say about taxes as gospel (I could easily be wrong). Susan Lee, EA, CFP, on the other hand, is someone you can and should listen to. She offers a ton of useful advice for freelancers of all types on her site

Got more info on reaping the vast riches from a freelance writing career? Did I post something factually inaccurate? Tell me about either in the comments.