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Writing Excuses 6.7: Brainstorming a Cyberpunk Story

Writing Excuses 6.7: Brainstorming a Cyberpunk Story


Key Points: Premise. What are we going to do with our character? Who is our character? Metaphors! Don't forget the punks -- black market? Don't forget the science. Plot? Character conflict, problem, and personality. Dystopia plus extrapolated science plus what-if's -- mix it all together, it spells cyberpunk!

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Seven, Brainstorming a Cyberpunk Story.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. Let's jump into this. We want to do a brainstorming session where you see a bunch of professional writers trying to come up with a story. I have dug out a copy of my Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, a mythology textbook I think I might have used or Emily used in college. I'm going to go to random pages and start throwing concepts out and the team is going to build a story out of this. So we're going to start with the premise. The premise of our story, the core or heart of our story. I'm going to throw three concepts at you. We will combine them into a story. One is Sanskrit. Okay?
[Dan] Okay.
[Howard] My only concern with Sanskrit is that Neal Stephenson did that, but...
[Dan] That was kind of Snow Crash, but that's okay.
[Mary] That's okay.
[Howard] That's fine. Go.
[Brandon] Okay. Clay.
[Dan] Clay? That goes well with Sanskrit.
[Brandon] And... um... Buddhism.

[Mary] Okay, so we've got some programmable clay that we're using with a 3-D... Someone has come up with a...
[Howard] Hey, do you want to know something neat? Halloysite clay contains nanoparticles and is actually a source of useful radio blocking nanoparticles.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Howard] They mine it here in Utah. Halloysite clay. So we've got a substance that is very cyberpunky right there.
[Brandon] Okay. So we've got a clay. What's the premise behind this? Buddhism, Sanskrit, and clay?
[Howard] I like Buddhism as a foundation for a groundbreaking new programming language.
[Mary] I could go there.
[Brandon] Okay. Buddhism as a programming language. Okay. How does that work, techie person? I don't... How can Buddhism...
[Howard] I... So I came up with... Go, Dan.
[Dan] Well, it's a programming language that isn't used for programming computers, but is actually used for programming reality itself.
[Mary] Programming minds.
[Dan] Programming people mentally? We could do that.
[Mary] There's just a lot more that could go wrong that way.
[Brandon] Okay. We can use Sanskrit... We don't actually have to use the language Sanskrit...
[Dan] It doesn't have to be Sanskrit. It could be any kind of cuneiform or hieroglyphic...
[Howard] What are the aspects of Sanskrit?
[Brandon] Well, Sanskrit was what they coded their laws in, wasn't it? It's famous for some of the first records of...
[Dan] It's the written version of Hindi language, I believe.
[Brandon] Yeah. Right. But Sanskrit is famous as a language for some of the legal codes, isn't it? Am I wrong on that? That some of the first legal codes we have are written in Sanskrit, and it became kind of a language...
[Dan] Hammurabi's law? Was that Sanskrit?
[Mary] I would totally research this if I were actually writing it.
[Howard] Exactly. This is...
[Dan] I know. The thing is, we don't have to be married to the words we found.
[Howard] Throw some stuff at us.
[Dan] We just keep going.

[Brandon] All right. This is what we're going to do with our character. Fire God.
[Dan] Nice.
[Howard] [whistle]
[Brandon] And pre-Christian.
[Mary] Okay.
[Dan] Okay. Well, that's not hard, with Sanskrit and Buddhism.
[Brandon] Sacrifice. And a traveler.
[Howard] Okay. Refining Halloysite clays requires heat.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Okay. Good.
[Brandon] But who's our character?
[Howard] That's what I'm thinking. This guy may be somebody who is...
[Mary] Working as a refiner.
[Howard] Just an exceptional refiner of these Halloysite nanoparticles.
[Mary] You were talking about your car and how it was being chipped so that the engine would run more efficiently. If the Fire God is refining the programming that controls the heat at which the Halloysite clay is refined, and that affects some property about whether or not it can... Someone pick up and run with this?
[Howard] No, no, no. That's good. The...

[Brandon] Let me jump in here. Let's point out that one of the reasons I grabbed this mythology textbook is... In cyberpunk, in particular, I've noticed a lot of these themes of mythology and things like this are taken as metaphors in this sort of writing. Meaning we're not going to write a fantasy story.
[Howard] Oh, you're right. Pull all the way back from Fire God, and Fire God becomes a corporation that is in a position of... Well, corporation in a position of power, duh. But...
[Brandon] Right. Our main corporation, yeah, Fire God represents our corporation. We're not looking... Like, the character is not going to be a fire god. That's not cyberpunk. The character could be named after an ancient Fire God and that is a metaphor for who he is and what he does. But...
[Howard] He is Vulcan Halloysite Enterprises lead engineer, and we've tied those things together.
[Brandon] Okay. He's the lead engineer for something that refines this clay, and... How do we work the cyberpunk... How do we work the punks into this? He's on the wrong side, so that's a story right there. He's on the side of the corporations.
[Mary] Well, one of the aspects that cyberpunks frequently uses is getting stuff on the black market. People who cannot afford whatever really cool property this is.
[Brandon] Okay. So is he selling our clay on the black market, or does he find something on the black market, or...
[Howard] He is...
[Dan] He could be skimming off from his company. He could be in charge of buying and selling this clay, and is keeping a little bit... Fixing the books so that he has extra he can sell.
[Howard] Nanoparticles. We got nanoparticles in the clay. Nanoparticles are perfect for circuitry... For tattoo circuitry. Okay? Which was last week's writing prompt.
[Brandon] Right. Okay. Let's use the circuit tattoos.
[Howard] So people are getting black market tattoos. They're not paying the licensing fees for the tattoos.
[Mary] In Sanskrit.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] And he's a light... Well, yeah, they use Sanskrit designs at the macro scale, at the microscale obviously it's written in Buddhism.
[Mary] Actually...
[Howard] Well, let me finish, because I'm coming around to here. He's the guy who's responsible for licensing enforcement, and he's discovered a great way to enforce the licensing on their stuff. Unfortunately, your tattoos will kill you if you get a black market tattoo and you run afoul of the licensing scanner.
[Brandon] Okay. It's got DRM on it, and if you try to remove the DRM...
[Howard] The DRM will now kill the person wearing the black market tattoo.
[Brandon] That's too easy. We've got to go with reprogramming. It will rewrite you if you try to bypass the DRM, and someone releases a hack that starts rewriting the DRM, removing it...
[Dan] And we have the zombie apocalypse.
[Brandon] No. The zombie apocalypse is too... But it starts, like... Let's... They put this thing in there... Someone put a backdoor in, and now there is actually a disease... It's not a disease, but it's a programming disease. It's like you shake hands with someone...
[Howard] It's a computer virus.
[Brandon] The virus transfers into your tattoos and is doing things to you.

[Howard] Where were you going to go, Mary? I interrupted you. I'm sorry.
[Mary] Oh, um. One of the things that I was thinking with the fire gods is that traditionally, they're lame.
[Brandon] They are.
[Mary] That was because a process... They think smiths of the period were frequently lame because of a process in bronze smelting. So I was thinking that if one of the reasons that he turns is because of something that goes wrong with him, so he has already been crippled by this backdoor...

[Brandon] Okay. Let's find out what the back door is doing. I'm going to throw some more words at you.
[Dan] More random words.
[Brandon] Wait, let's do our book of the week.
[Howard] As long as we're talking about random words, let's...
[Brandon] Yeah. Book of the week. Let's promo. Dan, you were going to promo a Philip K Dick book.
[Dan] Yes, my very... Now, Philip K Dick is, I guess, on the fringes of cyberpunk. I won't claim that he is exactly... But, whatever. My favorite Philip K Dick book is A Scanner Darkly, which is about a policeman who is in the drug squad and is hired to hunt down himself, essentially. There is a drug that people are taking that causes schizophrenic reactions. So he kind of separates into two people. It's a brilliant story. It's very cool. Kind of grungy Southern California version of cyberpunk. So...
[Howard] Doesn't it predate cyberpunk by a couple of decades?
[Dan] Yeah. Which is why I don't say it's exactly the thing...
[Howard] I've got no problem with that. It's a great...
[Brandon] Yeah. Philip K Dick was a precursor.
[Dan] It has a lot of the same themes in it. Especially when it comes to loss of identity how technology affects the human.
[Howard] So, very, very entertaining and a good research project. Go to, 14 day free trial membership, and have a listen to A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick.
[Dan] Excellent.

[Brandon] All right. I've opened up and picked the first two words that popped out at me. Alternative name... And coconut.
[Dan] Coconut, huh?
[Brandon] Coconut. It's what was there.
[Dan] Okay. I want to know, before we figure out what... How the hack changes the tattoos... Let's... What do the tattoos do when they're working properly? Is it just a connectivity thing? Is it the new iPhone?
[Howard] I would argue that it's a combination of connectivity and augmentation.
[Brandon] Yeah. What if people have been hanging out in cyberspace and loving that... We've got a cyberspace that's grown, people are loving what you can do in cyberspace, and are getting frustrated with real-life because their bodies are capable of some of the cool things in cyberspace. So the tattoos are an attempt to jump back into reality to augment the human body.
[Dan] And still be as cool as your WoW character.
[Brandon] And make you as cool as your WoW character.

[Mary] What if... Can I offer an alternate? What about... What if they... It makes your skin solar, so it's a way of calorie reduction?
[Brandon] Okay. I would say that we could do both of those. That could just be one of the main uses.

[Howard] The other thing is, it could work as a signal mechanism. You've used a GPS device that tells you turn left here. You've got this set of tattoos on you, and you've decided where it is you want to go... You're not seeing the map necessarily, you're being prodded, you're being guided by pleasure and pain and hot and cold sensations...
[Brandon] Okay. Let's not even do that. Let's just... No sensations, let's just... You're like, "Okay, I'm going to turn off." Just start walking, you can go on autopilot. Your feet will just take you there.
[Dan] That's cool.
[Howard] That's even better. Because that gives...
[Brandon] It's like self driving cars.
[Mary] I have problems with that, because your skin does not have that control, and that's giving it a much deeper physiological...
[Brandon] Right. But these things... I mean, the tattoos could go down into your nervous system. Like, they show up on your skin as a tattoo, but they're...
[Howard] Mary, you're absolutely right. That's why it makes a great reveal later in the book. You find out that the tattoos, in order to enable certain functionality... You turn this on and the tattoos migrate into deep muscle structure, deep neurological structure, and do horrible, horrible things... Like giving you an autopilot.

[Dan] Well, maybe their surface use is kind of a very simple RFID kind of coding. So as you walk down the street, it will simultaneously broadcast and pick up who everyone else is, what they're doing, as their Facebook status update kind of thing. So it's a connectivity thing that is eventually revealed to have this much more invasive effect.
[Howard] It's 21st century pheromones. You go out on a date, and you can immediately tell by tattoo contact whether or not this person likes you.
[Mary] That's not something you have to do with tattoos.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's not something you have to do with a tattoo. That's... What I keep running into in my head is why are they tattoos?
[Mary] That's part of the reason that I thought that the solar might be interesting.
[Brandon] Solar might be interesting.
[Mary] The reason that they're tattoos is to get around the problem of no one is going to want solar on their body, but if it's designer...
[Brandon] It could also just be the fact that these things need power, and the human body... Rather than you eating twice as much...
[Howard] Well, there is a great visual aspect of it. You've got these tattoos, they want to be self powering, so people are regularly stripped to the waist, so you are seeing...

[Brandon] It's cyberpunk or further. But, here's the thing. I mean, you could go dystopian a little bit more with this by saying the planet is populated so much that there is no food. Food is a premium. Being able to buy and afford food... That's something you do... On a date, you can go out and have a dessert, and that's the only food you'll eat that week. Everything else, you're powered by your tattoos.
[Dan] So, it's photosynthetic tattoos? Okay.
[Brandon] Yeah. You and your tattoos are powered. Making food... That would be a very cool cyberpunk thing, making something common now be just...
[Howard] My inner chemist has bad news for us about the amount of surface area required for those to actually power you. But what it may mean is that you spend most of your time just lying down plugged into the world while your tats soak up enough energy for you to go for a walk.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Mary] Which means the Pacific Northwest is depopulated.
[Dan] Which might mean that humans become nocturnal, because we need to spend our days powered down in the sun. Then we're awake at night.
[Brandon] Right. I mean this is...
[Howard] And the title of the book is Sunburn.

[Brandon] Since we're writing cyberpunk, I mean, we do have to explore the actual science of it, which is what we're doing. I mean, the question that comes to me is why don't they just have solar panels everywhere and have everyone live underground? Then you could just have people plug in and get powered. You wouldn't need the tattoos. But... We probably don't have time here to talk about the rationale.
[Howard] I was going to say. We haven't even gotten to the plot.
[Mary] Maybe these are... Maybe that's why there is a black market for them, is because they hate being plugged in underground. So the black market is, this is the high-end version of solar.
[Brandon] Right. That's a good idea. No, I like that because... The idea being you can... We're getting into you plug-in every night. You don't eat, you plug-in. Which is just a fascinating concept that I don't actually think I've read. I'm sure someone's done it. But you go home and you plug-in. If you're wealthy, you can afford these tattoos. You don't have to plug in. You can move around more. Something like that. It could be very interesting.
[Howard] So in terms of figuring out the chemistry, you go home, you plug-in, and something in your system is using the electricity to convert something else in your system to glycogen which your cells can then use. There will also need to be some sort of mechanism for materials to allow your cells to repair themselves, which is probably why you're eating the equivalent of brick dust once a week just so you get the minerals and the raw nutrients and...
[Dan] That's what the clay is for.
[Brandon] That's the clay.
[Dan] You've got to eat a couple of bricks.
[Brandon] You're eating the clay.
[Dan] Just to give yourself the raw minerals your body requires.
[Howard] My inner scientist, who knows how much Halloysite clay is in Utah, says we're going to run out of food really fast. It makes a great tattoo, it doesn't make a meal.

[Brandon] All right. Plot. We've got just a few minutes left. Let's see if we can pull a plot out of this. I mean, basically, we wanted to brainstorm the situation mostly, because we're talking about a situation, we're talking about cyberpunk. But our plot is the patron saint of Spain, concerned with restoring lost or stolen property and a... Let's see... Brewing of alcohol.
[Howard] [whistle]
[Dan] Okay.
[Brandon] What can you do with that, guys? Come on, you're creative. Let's combine them.
[Dan] Wow. Well, lost or stolen property is easy to deal with, but...
[Howard] Yeah, lost or stolen property we already touched on to an extent. Maybe what they're attempting to restore... I mean, the world that we've built is awfully darn dystopic. If somebody is working to reverse things, if somebody is working to make the world better...
[Dan] Then it wouldn't be cyberpunk.
[Howard] No, it can certainly be cyberpunk.
[Brandon] They just have to be working against an overwhelming force.
[Howard] Yeah, they're working against overwhelming force, and they fail, at least partially, and so we end up with an unexpected result. Which I haven't expected.

[Mary] So maybe... Right. So maybe this is not the need to plug-in is available worldwide, but is not everywhere. Like, some places still can grow food, and still do, depending on the country. For instance, Spain, being a... At this point in the future, having a fascist regime, is very controlling and still has food.
[Dan] Well, Spain today as become one of, if not the most, foody destination for travel in the entire world. Maybe it retains that reputation as food capital of the world, and that's where the rich people go when they want to eat real food.
[Mary] There you go.
[Brandon] Right. There are all sorts of cool things we could do with this. I'm very excited at this point.
[Howard] All of our calories have been imported from Barcelona.
[Brandon] Where we would need to go here is, we didn't spend enough time on character. We didn't have time for it. The character needs a conflict, needs a problem, and a personality. We've mostly given them a world to reside in. But hopefully...
[Howard] We had such fun creating that world, though.
[Brandon] We tend to get sidetracked in these and focus only on the world. But I allowed it in this one, because it's cyberpunk. We're looking at the world. What you should take away from this is how we tried to take everything and focus it on more of the dystopian plus real-world science extrapolated kind of in a scary way mixed with just kind of near future what if's. Hopefully that will work for you.

[Brandon] All right. Mary, writing prompt.
[Mary] Come up with a cyberpunk world. For your seed for it, think about penguins.
[Brandon] Okay. Penguins in a cyberpunk world.
[Dan] Nice.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Just don't write Happy Feet.
[Dan] I don't know. The cyberpunk Happy Feet, I would watch.
Tags: brainstorming, character, conflict, cyberpunk, metaphor, personality, plot, premise, problem

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