Aeryn’s Archives: Vault of the Dragon Kings

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about the projects I’ve written and worked on over my professional career, from fiction to RPGs to tabletop war-gaming stuff. I’ll try to add insights into how the project came together and maybe an amusing anecdote or two. Anyway, with over 400 writing, editing, and development credits, we could be at this a while, but I’ll try to restrict my posts to the more interesting projects. 🙂

Let’s kick things off with my very first professional job in the tabletop gaming industry way back in 2005: Dungeon Crawl Classics #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings. 

For the uninitiated, what you have here is a module or adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. This is not an adventure produced by the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons,  Wizards of the Coast, but a third party product created under license by Goodman Games. The lead writer on this one was Jason Little, and my role was as a stat editor and monster creator (I was credited under Stat Blocks & Creature Development and Additional Writing & Development). This essentially means I checked a lot of math and created some monsters for the adventure. That’s not the interesting part of this gig, though. How I got it is.

When Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons (often just called 3E) back in 2000, they created a version of the game that was more versatile than any before it. The rules let you build characters and monsters in a clearly defined way that allowed for endless customization. In addition, they opened up the game to third party publishers to produce material through something called the Open Gaming License (or OGL). I won’t go into the specifics because it’s mostly a bunch of math and legalese and stuff, but this new system sparked a creative fire in me. So I started making monsters, mostly by taking existing D&D critters and upgrading them with the new rules system. I also wrote little backstories for my creations and posted them on a popular Dungeons & Dragons message board. In some ways it was similar to fan fiction, though the OGL made it more commercially viable. (I also actually wrote fan fiction, but that’s a story for another day).

My creations earned me a small following from D&D players who frequented that message boards, and a few of those folks turned out to be publishers as well. One of them, Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, liked what he saw and reached out to see if I’d be willing to work on a module in his very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Needless to say I was thrilled for the opportunity, and thus began my career in tabletop gaming. Better yet, it also started a great professional relationship that’s lasted nearly fifteen years, and I still do the occasional job for Goodman Games to this day.

Oh, for you old school gamers, you might recognize the cover artist on this one. Yep, that’s a piece by the incomparable Erol Otus.

If you’d like to check out this module up close and personal, it’s still available through Goodman Games via the link below (or the giant cover illustration above):

DCC #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings

Submission Spotlight: The Do Not Send List

Today we’re exploring another potential submission guidelines surprise. This time it’s not about formatting or regional preferences, it’s types of stories publishers would rather not see at all. I call this the Do No Send List  As usual, you should read the guidelines completely and thoroughly so you don’t miss publisher preferences. The Do Not Send List is usually pretty obvious, but not always, so read carefully.

The Do Not Send List is fairly common in submission guidelines and comes in a few different versions. Let’s take a look at them.

1) Send at your own risk. The regular strength version of the Do Not Send List is more suggestion than command, but you should still be aware of the publisher’s preferences when sending them a story. This version usually looks something like this:

Originality demands that you’re better off avoiding vampires, zombies, and other recognizable horror tropes unless you have put a very unique spin on them. 

They’re not saying you can’t send vampire and zombie stories, but you’d better come up with some mind-blowingly original shit if you hope to get one published. You’ll see this kind of thing in guidelines pretty often, and I think it’s because, yes, the publisher is tired of getting Dog Soldiers and Twilight knockoffs, but they still recognize it is possible to make those old tropes fresh and interesting again. So, sure, if you think you’ve got a truly original take on a vampire story, send it to a publisher like this. You never know.

2) Do not send. Like, seriously. For really reals. Some publishers,  tired of seeing the same old tropes again and again and again, take a more aggressive approach to the Do Not Send List, in that it is truly a DO NOT SEND list. Those generally look like this.

We do not accept stories with the following: vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers, hitmen, excessive gore or sex.

As you can see, most of your standard horror tropes are included in the guideline above, though hitmen is one I don’t encounter as often (but if they put it in, it’s because they’re getting too many). In this case, absolutely do not send a story containing these tropes. It’ll just make you look like you didn’t read the guidelines, and that, my friend, is a real bad look. Most of what’s on the list is pretty straight forward. If your story contains a vampire, a zombie, a werewolf (or other lycanthrope), a serial killer, or a hitman, just don’t send it. Seriously, don’t. But what about the other stuff? The stuff that has the word excessive in front of it. That’s a tougher call because what’s excessive to one person may not be excessive to another. The best thing to do here is read the publication in question to get an idea where they draw the line is on such subjects. Of course, the question then becomes is the example story right up to the line or a few feet behind it? For me, excessive usually means gratuitous, but even that’s open to interpretation. In the end, you’ll likely have to use your best judgement.

3) A list of hard sells. Some markets expand on the send at your own risk example and give you an entire list of stories and tropes that generally don’t work for them. Like with example one, they aren’t saying don’t send them, but if you do, you better do something very different with that serial killer werewolf story. Below are some markets that have hard sell lists, and I find they’re pretty informative, especially when you’re starting out and you think every idea you have is super original (it’s not).

  • Clarkesworld: This market’s hard-sell list is right in their general guidelines and hard to miss. It’s also pretty exhaustive.
  • Strange Horizons: This list, called Stories We’ve Seen Too Often, is part of Strange Horizons submission guidelines. It’s a long list of cliches and overused tropes compiled over the years, and it’s an informative read.
  • Flash Fiction Online: FFO’s list of hard sells is shorter than the others, but they go into a lot of detail why a certain trope or theme is on their list.

You can learn a lot from these lists, and not just about the preferences of markets that include them in their guidelines. If one publisher considers a trope or plot device to be overused and cliched, well, then others might too. Keep in mind, though, that just because you write a story that includes an element that’s on these lists doesn’t mean it’s a bad story or unsellable, just that it probably is going to need an original spin to set it apart from all the other zombie apocalypse, vampire romance, werewolf soldier, and serial killer turned detective stories out there.


If you’ve read any of the other entries in this series, you probably know what I’m going to say now. Yep, read the guidelines completely, carefully, and every time you send a submission. Sometimes these little nuggets of information are buried in a publisher’s guidelines, but it’s still your job to find them, read them, and implement them.

Have you seen anything else pop up on Do Not Send Lists? Tell me about it in the comments.

NYCM Round 2: The Dread Scotsman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge at the urging of some of my writer pals. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

I didn’t do particularly well in the contest, and I did not make the semi-finals. What are you gonna do? Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts and the stories I wrote with them.

Round 2

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Location: A ship’s cabin
  • Object: A black and white photo

Like “No Guns, No Knives,” the story for “The Dread Scotsman” came pretty quick, maybe too quick. You can read it below.


The Dread Scotsman

“There she is, sir,” Sergeant Pennyworth said and lowered his spyglass.

Lieutenant Nigel Armstrong peered over the gunwales of The Eagle at the ship speeding toward them. The HMS Saber flew the Union Jack but was no longer part of the British Navy, nor was its captain, formerly Commander Angus MacLeod, now known as The Dread Scotsman.

“Ready the men,” Nigel said.

Pennyworth turned and signaled to the Royal Marines hidden among the crew of The Eagle. Nigel’s unit had been loaned out to the whaling vessel after The Dread Scotsman had murdered the crews of three others and the Crown had finally chosen to intercede.

The marines took their positions while The Eagle’s crew, many of them casting terrified glances at the approaching pirate vessel, went about their business. Nigel had assured The Eagle’s captain, Arthur Hayes, two dozen marines were more than a match for MacLeod’s crew, now composed primarily of criminals from Barbados and St. Lucia.

Watching The Saber barrel in, Nigel hoped his promise to Captain Hayes hadn’t been bravado, and his hands slipped to the hilt of his cutlass and the butt of his pistol. He longed for a rifle, but long guns would reveal their presence too soon.

The Saber carried cannons, but Macleod wouldn’t use them. A whaling ship like The Eagle was too fat a prize. No, this would be a boarding action, up close and brutal.

The Saber came alongside The Eagle, its gunwales swarming with men clutching knives, sabers, and pistols. MacLeod was among them, towering over the tallest of his men, his red hair and beard like a bloody wreath around his head. He clenched an archaic Scottish backsword in one massive fist and a double-barreled pistol in the other. Around his neck hung a string of silver plates, daguerreotypes portraying his many victims in their final moments. The ghoulish trophies were courtesy of one Alistair Coke, a naturalist and photographer who’d had the profound misfortune to be aboard the first whaling vessel MacLeod had taken.

The battle began with smoke and thunder as the pirates unleashed a fusillade of pistol fire. Nigel threw himself to the deck, as did the marines behind him. They had orders to wait until the pirates were on board to reveal their presence. MacLeod might turn tail if he knew he faced experienced soldiers and not a ship full of terrified whalers.

At the thud of boots on The Eagle’s deck Nigel sprang to his feet, weapons in hand. He shot the nearest pirate through the throat, parried a saber thrust from another, then split the man’s skull with his cutlass.

The rest of his marines joined the fray. All were skilled combatants, and they slashed and blasted their way through the pirates with grim efficiency. Smoke and screams filled the air, and a dozen of MacLeod’s men lay dead in moments. None of this deterred the Dread Scotsman. He wielded his backsword like a barbarian warlord, smashing aside his opponents’ blades, then running them through or cracking their skulls with the butt of his pistol. As he fought, the daguerreotypes around his neck made a terrible staccato clatter, like metal teeth gnashing together.

Nigel needed to get MacLeod’s attention. He cut down a pirate, grabbed the man’s pistol, and fired. From thirty feet away his chances of hitting the Scotsman were slim, but luck was with him, and the ball grazed MacLeod’s cheek. With a bellow of surprise and outrage, the Scotsman whirled toward Nigel.

Good, Nigel thought and moved toward the nearest hatch. It led down to the captain’s cabin. Across the deck, MacLeod surged in Nigel’s direction, smashing marines out of his way with blows from his pistol butt or whirling cuts from his sword.

Nigel fled down the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest. He was a skilled swordsman, but MacLeod’s strength and size were advantages not easily overcome, at least not where the Scotsman had room to swing his larger blade.

The captain’s cabin was small, ten feet by ten feet, an ideal battleground for a man armed with a shorter cutlass . . .

MacLeod thundered down the steps behind Nigel. His eyes blazed with wrath, and he threw a wide sweeping cut, his blade humming through the air like a swarm of angry bees. Nigel stopped the backsword with a stiff parry, but the shock of the brute’s attack nearly ripped the cutlass from his hand. He wouldn’t last long trading blows with MacLeod.

The Scotsman, sensing his victory, grinned, exposing a mouthful of crooked yellowed teeth. “Are ye ready for your portrait, Lieutenant,” he said, his brogue thick and menacing.

“Only if you’ll comb my hair, you overstuffed haggis,” Nigel replied.

MacLeod roared and launched an overhand strike that would have split his foe from nose to navel had it landed. Instead, the tip of the Scotsman’s sword plowed into the low ceiling and stuck. It was what Nigel had been waiting for. He lunged, a thrust his fencing master at the academy would have lauded, and drove a foot of steel through MacLeod’s right eye. The tip of Nigel’s blade burst from the back of the Scotsman’s skull, and MacLeod toppled over backward and crashed to the floor, his daguerreotypes clattering like a death rattle.

Sergeant Pennyworth came down the steps a heartbeat later. When he saw MacLeod’s corpse he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the lord, sir. I was sure that beastly Scotsman had done for you.”

Nigel offered the sergeant a shaky smile. “Not today. How’d we fare?” The gunfire and sounds of battle had faded from above.

“Six dead on our side, but we killed thirty of theirs at least. The rest have laid down their arms.”

Nigel nodded and considered the Dread Scotsman’s corpse at his feet. “Sergeant, find that Alistair Coke fellow if he’s still alive, the naturalist and photographer MacLeod had aboard. I think there’s one last image he might like to capture.”


The toughest part of the prompt for me was the black and white photo because action/adventure immediately took my mind to pirates, and I just couldn’t shake the idea in the limited time I had to write. I also made it harder on myself by essentially writing historical fiction, which requires a level of research that’s hard to pull off in this kind of timeframe. My biggest hurdle was simply that photos and most folks’ idea of pirates are usually separated by at least a century, so I had a real challenge. I fudged a little (okay, a lot) and used an early form of photography (daguerreotypes) and set the story in the 1840s where sailing vessels were still a thing. The story won’t hold up to any kind of real historical scrutiny, of course, but I had fun with it.

I think “The Dread Scotsman” is a better story than “No Guns, No Knives,” though it still has issues (historical accuracy notwithstanding). The reviewers mostly liked it, but they pointed out what is likely the story’s biggest weakness. The stakes for Nigel and his marines aren’t clearly defined. They need to feel and express more peril, and their fate, should they fail to defeat the Dread Scotsman, needs to be explored a bit more. Now, there’s likely room to do that with this story and still keep it at flash length, and I might even consider submitting it somewhere IF there were a market for action/adventure stories. I scoured Duotrope and found exactly one that would take a story like this. So “The Dread Scotsman” becomes blog fodder, and I’m okay with that.

Three Types of Tough Rejections

If you’ve been submitting short stories for any length of time, then you’ve likely developed a fairly thick skin when it comes to rejections. After you hit triple digits, those form rejections, filled with not for us’s and doesn’t fit our needs’s, kind of lose their sting. They’re pretty easy to take in stride, and it’s not too difficult to move on and send that story somewhere else. But in my experience (after well over 300 rejections), there are three types of Nos that can really take the wind out of your sales if you let them. Let’s talk about them, what they might mean, and how best to deal with them.

Tough Rejection #1 – The Long-Wait Form Rejection

What it is: Some markets just take longer than others to get back to you. Sometimes the wait can exceed six months or even a year with some literary markets (and one or two genre publishers). Generally, a long-wait form rejection is not preceded by a shortlist letter or really any other communication from the publisher. If you do get a shortlist letter, well, that’s more example number two.

Why it’s tough:  Even though I shouldn’t, even though I know better, I can’t help but get my hopes up a little when a submission starts getting long in the tooth. The theory that the longer a publisher holds a story the more likely it is to be published doesn’t hold much water in my experience, but for some reason I can’t help thinking that maybe THIS time it means something. So, invariably when that form rejection comes after 150 days, it’s more disappointing than if it cames in a couple of weeks.

What to do: I usually follow the same protocol with a long-wait form rejection that I do with any form rejection. Without any specific feedback on the story to prompt a revision, I log the rejection and send the piece out again, right away. I might be somewhat hesitant to submit to the publisher again, especially if they don’t allow sim-subs.

Tough Rejection #2 – The Shortlist Rejection

What it is: A rejection preceded by a shortlist letter. Sometimes it’s not a shortlist, but a second round or second read notification, but it’s essentially the same thing–the publisher has indicated your story is of interest and has made it past the slush pile at the very least.

Why it’s tough: Unlike the long-wait form rejection, you get your hopes up with a shortlist rejection for good reason. The publisher has straight up told you they like the story, at least enough to give it a second read or seriously consider it. If that shortlist rejection is from a prestigious market, say one you’ve been trying to crack for years, then your hopes soar even higher. That, of course, means they can reach terminal velocity before hitting the pavement when that rejection shoots them out of the sky.

What to do: With a rejection like this, you have to look at the positive (because it is mostly positive). If the story was shortlisted, that means two things. One, this publisher probably likes your work and wants to see more of it, and, two, you probably have a good story on your hands that you should immediately send out again. The one caveat here is if the shortlist rejection gives you valuable feedback on the story and the editor points out something they think needs work. In that case, if you agree, then it might be time to revise the story, but you can do so with the knowledge it’s probably close to where it needs to be.

Tough Rejection #3 – The Thorough Personal Rejection

What it is: A personal rejection where the editor relates, in detail, what they didn’t like about the story (or your writing). There is often some positive feedback as well, but in my experience these rejections can go a bit heavier on things the editor doesn’t like. It’s important to note these rejection aren’t mean-spirited, and the editor is trying to give constructive feedback. I’ve yet to get a rejection where I thought the editor was being intentionally hurtful. I’m sure they exist, but I doubt they’re very common.

Why it’s tough: It’s never fun to read what someone doesn’t like about your work. It’s especially not fun to read a lengthy rejection where the editor spells it out bluntly and exhaustively.  I don’t care who you are, that stings.

What to do: First, put the rejection aside until you’re in a more objective headspace, then go back and read it carefully. More likely than not, you’re going to discover a couple of things. The first is the editor has done you a service. They’ve clearly indicated what doesn’t work for them with the story, and that’s something you can use for future submissions. Also, they’ve probably hit on some things that DO need work in the story. It’s always helpful to get that kind of feedback. The second thing you might realize is that, well, this is one person’s opinion, and it’s possible that some of the things they’re calling out in your story are stylistic mismatches. Let me see if I can better illustrate that last point:

I don’t like Doctor Who (probably gonna lose some followers over that). I don’t think it’s a bad show, but it is decidedly not for me. I find it a little silly, over-the-top, and just weird for weirdness’ sake. Now, I know from talking to fans of the show that those same qualities are part of the reason they like it. Also, because those elements stick out for me, I may be unable to appreciate the show’s other qualities as much, like its boundless creativity, good acting, and generally upbeat tone. Now imagine I write Doctor Who-style stories, and I submit one to a magazine that is more like The Expanse or Altered Carbon (or some other gritty, realistic sci-fi). There’s a damn good chance I’m going to get a rejection, and if the editor gives me specific feedback about things they don’t like, some of it might be because our tastes and styles are completely mismatched.

Now this is not to say that every thorough personal rejection is because the editor simply has a different taste in story than what you write. We’re all capable of writing a clunker or sending a story out before its ready or a hundred other things that can result in this kind of rejection. So when you get one of these, try to be objective as possible, realize the editor is trying to be helpful and not hurtful, and see what you can learn from their feedback.


So those are three types of tough rejections I’ve encountered. What about you? Tell me about your tough rejections in the comments.

Submission Spotlight: Fun With Formatting

If you’ve sent out any short story submissions, you are likely very familiar with Shunn Standard Formatting. If you’re not, follow the link in the last sentence and GET familiar. Now, the vast majority of publishers ask for Shunn (often just called standard manuscript formatting), but sometimes it’s a starting point more than a formatting destination. So, like everything in this series of posts, it’s important that you read very carefully to pick out all this little formatting idiosyncrasies in the guidelines.

Let’s take a look at some examples of how publisher formatting guidelines vary from Shunn.

1) 99% Shunn. Sometimes a publisher wants just a slight deviation from standard formatting, like this:

Submissions should generally follow standard manuscript format, though we prefer single-spaced instead of double-spaced.

A slight change to standard formatting is pretty common. These small changes can be easy to miss because, however, so, as always, read very carefully. The other change I often see looks like this:

The Editor MUCH prefers Times New Roman.

Not every editor is down with Courier, and you’ll often see a request for a different font. Times New Roman is the most common, but I’ve seen other serif fonts requested as well. Again, this is a simple change to make, but if you’re not looking for it, you can miss it.

2) Mostly Shunn. Publishers sometimes ask for a larger deviation from standard manuscript formatting, but often with good reason.

Standard Manuscript Format, but with all author information removed from the manuscript.

For publishers who read submission blind, standard formatting presents a challenge in that it lists an author’s name and info on the front page. I see this request a lot, and it’s fairly easy to implement. If you’re like me and you have a standard manuscript template ready to go, remember to remove your name from the header too. I’ve almost missed that one a few times.

3) Doing our own thing. The last group of publishers are those that do not reference standard formatting and give camplete, albeit brief, formatting guidelines.

Double spaced Docx or RTF files set in a 14 point serif font like Times New Roman.

Often times when a publisher break from standard formatting, they’ll have very simple formatting guidelines like what you see above. That’s pretty easy to follow, and honestly, you could probably just use standard formatting here, change the font to Times New Roman, and be good to go. That said, sometimes the formatting guidelines will be more in depth.

  • All manuscripts should be double-spaced with broad margins and numbered pages.
  • Use 12 pt Times font, or a similar serif font, such as Cambria, Palatino, Baskerville. No other fonts, please. Italise words and passages that you want italicised. DO NOT underline words or passages you want italicised

Again, you could probably start with standard manuscript formatting (if that’s your template), change the font to one they have listed, and italicize words and passages you want italicized. Everything else in standard formatting conforms to what they want (broad margins, double spaced, numbered pages), and my guess the small additions (name and title in the header, for example) won’t be an issue. Rarely will a publisher have more detailed instructions outside of standard format, but I have seen one or two that are as in-depth as Shunn yet completely different.

4) It really doesn’t matter. The last type of publisher breaks from standard manuscript format because formatting isn’t all that important to them.

Don’t worry about standard manuscript format, as long as we can read it we’ll read it. 

Some publishers aren’t that concerned with formatting as long as the story is legible and you don’t use some crazy, weird font. A lot of the time when I see this in guidelines it’s because you’re pasting the story into a submission form that’s text only (or even into an email), so you couldn’t do standard manuscript format even if you tried.


Of the four examples above, the one I personally have to be watch for is the first example. That one little change to standard formatting can throw me because it’s not a big enough change (nor does it take up much real estate in the guidelines) to catch my attention if I’m not careful. Will a publisher auto-reject your story for a minor formatting mistake? Most of the time, probably not, but there are publishers who will (and they’ll tell you right in the guidelines). So, as always, it’s incumbent on you to read the guidelines completely and carefully every time for every submission.

Know of any other ways publishers deviate from standard manuscript formatting? Tell me about in the comments.

NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives

Recently, at the urging of some folks in my writing group, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

Pretty straightforward, right? Well, I didn’t make it past the second round, and both my stories came in 13th place (out of like 30, if I remember correctly) in my various heats and did not score enough points to put me into the semi-finals. Despite my lackluster showing, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts I recieved AND the stories I threw together with them. So let’s do that.

Round 1

  • Genre: Thriller
  • Location: A commuter train
  • Object: An ethernet cable

Not the toughest assignment, and the idea for “No Guns, No Knives” came pretty quick. You can read it below.


No Guns, No Knives

Kissinger’s target walked past his seat carrying a black laptop bag. Andrei Volkov was short, solidly built, and his heavy limbs and black beard gave him an almost bear-like appearance.

Outside the commuter train, the Pacific Northwest sped past. The Sounder ran from Tacoma to Seattle, and the few people on board were absorbed in books or smart phones. None of them noticed Kissinger reaching beneath his coat to touch the cool steel butt of his Beretta. The handgun was uncomfortable to carry with the suppressor attached, but it and the subsonic ammunition made the weapon no louder than a sharp clap, easily obscured by the noise of the moving train.

As Kissinger rose from his seat to follow Volkov his phone buzzed. Frowning, he pulled the cheap burner from his pocket and sat down again. It was Frank. “Jesus, I’m about to go to work.”

“I know,” Frank said. “But there’s a problem. The client has, uh, changed his mind on the details.”

“What?” Kissinger said, alarmed. “This guy is twenty minutes from the Federal Building. If he gets there, our client is fucked.” Volkov was an accountant who’d been cooking the books for Ivan Kuznetzov, a local Russian mob boss. Word on the street was he’d been indicted for tax fraud and was eager to make a deal with the Feds. The considerable information he had on Kuzentzov would be irresistible to the FBI.

“Turns out Volkov is Kuznetzov’s cousin,” Frank said. “He wants him . . . intact for the funeral.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Kissinger hissed into the phone.

“No guns, no knives.”

“Goddamn it, Frank. I didn’t bring tools for that kind of work.”

“I know; I’m sorry, really.”

Kissinger considered his options. They were few and unappealing. “What if I didn’t get this message?”

Frank was silent for a moment, then, “You want to fuck around with Kuznetzov? I like you, Kissinger. You’re precise and professional. But if you shoot or stab Volkov, there is an excellent chance the next contract across my desk will have your name on it.”

Kissinger sighed. Frank was right. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He snapped the phone closed.

During Kissinger’s phone conversation, Volkov had moved to the next car. Kissinger got up and walked slowly toward it. By the landmarks whizzing by outside the window, he estimated he had about ten minutes before they reached Seattle.

The gun under his jacket and the knife in his right boot were useless weight at best, dangerous temptations at worst. He’d killed men with his hands before, but it was slow, loud, and likely to draw attention. His preferred method was a single gunshot to the head. Quick, painless, certain. Unfortunately, a hollow-point 9mm slug often did not leave a pretty corpse.

Volkov rose from his seat when Kissinger entered the next car. He froze, wondering if his target had spotted him for who and what he was. Instead, the Russian ambled slowly to the tiny bathroom cubicle at the other end of the car.

Kissinger looked around and realized the car was empty except for him and his target. Hit men did not ignore good fortune when it smiled on them, and he raced forward, slamming into Volkov as the Russian opened the door to the bathroom. He ended up in a three-foot-by-three-foot cubicle, pressed up against the back of the man he was supposed to kill.

Volkov’s right hand shot to his left pants pocket, scrabbling at what had to be a concealed pistol. There was no room to aim it, but if he fired the weapon, the whole train would hear the shot.

Kissinger threw a short, sharp punch into Volkov’s kidneys, keeping him from pulling his pistol, and desperately searched for something to fight with. Volkov’s bag was open, and Kissinger pushed his left hand inside while he held Volkov in place with the right. The Russian grunted and struggled, but didn’t cry out. That wouldn’t last.

Kissinger’s hand became entangled in something in Volkov’s bag. It felt like thin, plastic rope. His eyes widened, and he yanked out a coiled length of blue Ethernet cable. Kissinger pulled away from Volkov’s body as much as the small space allowed. The Russian used the tiny bit of freedom to go for his gun again and managed to get it out of his pocket. Kissinger used the space to bring both hands up and wrap the Ethernet cable around Volkov’s throat. He spun around, bent forward, his forehead brushing the bathroom door, and lifted Volkov off his feet, drawing the cable tight around the Russian’s throat.

Volkov made a terrified gagging noise, and his pistol clattered to the floor. Kissinger hung on, the cable digging furrows into his hands. Volkov’s feet drummed against the sink, and he jerked and writhed. Finally, his struggles weakened, then stopped. Kissinger held on for another thirty seconds to make sure.

A sudden latrine stench told Kissinger the hit has been a success. He sat Volkov’s body on the toilet, pocketed the ethernet cable, and checked his handiwork.

Volkov’s eyes were open, bulging and red, and his tongue protruded from his mouth. A livid red line encircled his neck. It would turn into an ugly purple bruise in a few minutes.

Kissinger slipped out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. The car beyond was still blessedly empty, and he made his way to the next one, praying no one would need the toilet.

He spent a tense few minutes waiting for the next stop. When The Sounder pulled into downtown Seattle he was through the doors and walking away from the station in less than a minute.

He called Frank when he was far enough away to avoid suspicion.

“Is it done?” Frank asked.

“It is.”

“Were you able to meet the client’s request?”

Kissinger snorted irritably. “As best I could, but they’re gonna want a high collar and a necktie for the funeral.”


As you can see, all the prompts added up (for me anyway) to an assassination or hit on a commuter train with the ethernet cable as the weapon. Since it was a thriller, I needed the story to move quickly and have a fair amount of action. I also needed some kind of wrinkle that would force my hitman to use such an unorthodox weapon without stretching belief too far. I think the story accomplishes what I needed it to. It is clearly a thriller and the object and location are strongly incorporated and integral to the plot. It’s failing, I think, is that it’s not particularly memorable. I like some of the dialog between Kissinger and his handler, Frank, and the bathroom scene was fun to write, but at the end of the day there’s probably not much that makes this story stand out. It gets the job done, but not much more, hence it’s relatively low score.

Well, that was round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Check back next week and I’ll show you my round two story 🙂

Submission Spotlight: Regional Preferences

Today we’re talking once again about potentially unexpected elements of submission guidelines. As always, you should read the guidelines completely and carefully every time you submit a story. These articles simply highlight the many reasons why. This Submission Spotlight focuses on regional preferences and how they could affect you if you live outside a market’s targeted region.

1) If you live there, you can submit here. Sometimes a regional preferences is so focused, a publisher will not accept ANY submission outside of that region.

[Publisher] is looking for original science fiction and speculative fiction from New Zealand, Australian, and Pacific writers. This means that (for now) you can only submit to [publisher] if you are a citizen of New Zealand, Australia, or the Pacific, or if you are a resident of these areas.

Pretty straightforward, right? If you don’t live in that part of the world, don’t send them a story. Markets with these restrictions are generally pretty easy to spot and usually have this part of the guidelines right at the very top (but not always). In addition, market databases like Duotrope will mark a publisher like this with a limited demographic warning at the top of their entry.

2) Limited seating. Some publishers that focus on a specific region might allow submission from outside that region, but can only publish a small percentage of them. There’s often a very good reason for this, such as:

Our mandate is to give our readers the best SF we can find, regardless of the author’s nationality, and we have published authors from Canada, the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, South America, and more. In order to qualify for grants, we do have to maintain 80% Canadian content.

This market must publish mostly Canadian authors to qualify for grants, which no doubt keeps them in business and publishing (a good thing). They’re open and upfront about the restriction, and if you live outside of Canada, it’s something to take into consideration. Should you submit to a market like this if you’re outside of their region? Absolutely. If you’re story is good enough, you always have a chance.

3) Small window. Other markets with a regional preference may choose to publish authors from outside their region but might give them a shorter window to submit. Like this:

Submissions from Australian and New Zealand writers: 1 February – 30 September

Submissions from anyone anywhere: 1 August – 30 September

This market gives authors from their part of the world a big window in which to submit (eight months) and authors outside of that region a much smaller window (two months). This seems to me a pretty equitable way to do things. If you’re not from Australian and New Zealand, you simply treat this publisher like any other with a short annual submission window.


As I said in the opening, always read the guidelines completely and carefully. There’s no good reason to miss something like a regional preference (or anything else, for that matter). Most publishers are going to put something like this right at the top of the guidelines, and, as previously mentioned, market databases like Duotrope often note a market’s preferences in their entry.

Know of any other way publishers handle regional preferences? Tell me about it in the comments.