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Writing Excuses 7.35: Brainstorming with Dan

Writing Excuses 7.35: Brainstorming with Dan


Key Points: brainstorming a military fiction with some supernatural elements. Title: I.E. Demon. Built by the lowest bidder! Alternate history/Earth or not? How long is the story? Our universe lets you leverage familiar elements. Don't kill the demon, repurpose it. R.P. Gremlin. Characters? Need someone familiar with supernatural? Specialists? Expert as sidekick, but not main character. Read the Field Manual! What about the contractor? Or maybe a D&D guy? Cast needs to be tiny for a short story (3 characters) BUT military fiction often has troop. Need reason for small group to be isolated. Give the extras a good reason to get out of the way! [metapoint: there are lots of alternatives, dream a bit!]

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. This week's episode, Brainstorming with Dan.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And I'm not that smart.
[Howard] No, you're not.
[Mary] Mwahahahaha!
[Brandon] Okay. You know who we are.
[Howard] Should we introduce ourselves? You know who we are.
[Brandon] You know who we are.

[Brandon] We're going to take the thing we talked about last week, we're going to do it with Dan. Who actually has an invitation to an anthology, so…
[Dan] Yes. My friend, George Scott, who runs Peerless Books in Alpharetta Georgia, he does a very cool charity called Books for Heroes, where he sends books overseas to soldiers. They are doing a short story anthology connected to that, and he asked me to participate, which is awesome. But it is specifically military thrillers, which I've never written before, and so I don't really know what to do. I asked him if I could throw in some supernatural elements and he said yes. I was telling Howard about this idea last week, and he gave me the coolest title ever, which is I.E. Demon. Which I think is such a cool, like Afghanistan…
[Mary, Brandon] [chuckling]
[Howard] IED is improvised explosive device.
[Dan] So I would like to use that title.
[Brandon] Improvised Explosive Demon?
[Dan] Yeah. An improvised explosive demon.
[Howard] No, just IE Demon, not improvised explosive.
[Mary] It's Internet Explorer Demon, which is much more destructive.

[Brandon] Okay. So we are brainstorming IE Demon for you.
[Dan] So, yeah. I have that title and I have a couple of ideas and I have nothing else. We need to turn this into a story in the next 15 minutes.
[Mary] Okay. Well, what are the couple of ideas you have?
[Dan] Okay. Well, so one, for example, is to just go right with the IED, the little bomb that is hidden in the road that they can trigger and blow up a passing convoy of soldiers. If that is a demon… Say the Taliban or whatever, they've run out of resources, they don't have actual bombs anymore, and so they've made a pact with horrible dark forces from beyond. They've got a demon buried under the road, and when a tank drives over it, they chant, it explodes, and out comes a demon and starts eating people.
[Howard] An alternative to that is the demon is being provided by Halliburton as armor that's under the Humvee. There are demons riding under the Humvees whose job it is to absorb the killing blow of the explosive.
[Brandon] Okay. So now you've got good demons?
[Howard] Well, not necessarily good demons. I mean, if the IED goes off in the wrong way, you end up with loose demons who are injured and angry.
[Dan] Or just really pissed off demons.
[Mary] Right.
[Brandon] Oh, right. Okay. So on one side, the Taliban is demonic consulting, on the other side, it is the US military who is using them as armor.
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. The first idea was the first one I went to, and at the risk of kowtowing to political correctness, portraying terrorists as demon worshipers…
[Mary] Yeah, that is problematic.
[Dan] There could be a problem there.
[Howard] It's problematic. Portraying Halliburton as demon mongering is just funny.
[Brandon] Although it is a charity to support soldiers, correct?
[Dan] Yes. So there's a definite element of fan service, so to speak, in the anthology.
[Brandon] So there is that. If you're considering where it's coming from, painting the soldiers as using demon technology…

[Howard] Well, what I'd… The way I'd roll with this is… I mean, a common theme in military fiction is your equipment was built by the lowest bidder. The idea that, yeah, somebody built armor and got the lowest bid…
[Dan] They managed to undercut Halliburton.
[Howard] Undercut Halliburton. So the soldiers don't know what's in here.
[Mary] I love that.
[Howard] And you have them fighting a runaway demon as a result of the IED going off.
[Brandon] Now that's cool. I love that idea. Now the question…
[Mary] That! That is a great deal of fun. The lowest bidder…
[Howard] Do you need me to write it for you now, Dan?
[Dan] Yes, please.
[Brandon] No, no, that's awesome.
[Mary] I'm also going to point out that Partials has a fair bit of military…
[Brandon] Yeah, there is…
[Dan] That's true. There's a lot of military fiction kind of stuff in Partials.

[Brandon] Here's the question I want to ask you, Dan. Do you want this to be alternate history or alternate Earth? Meaning demons are common, or maybe not common, but known of? So if we go with Howard's concept, the lowest bidder… You're not sure what weird magic they used in this armor.
[Dan] Yeah, because I can see that. It could be a world in which the lowest bidder is the one who happens to have discovered demon summoning, or like you're saying, it could be an alternate Earth where the low bidder is the one who didn't use the right kind of chalk in the circle, and so the demons are a lot more likely to break out.
[Brandon] Or… You don't normally build a armor out of demons. But it could be an alternate universe where like, "Wait a minute! They built our armor out of demons!" Rather than…
[Howard] I think… Well, how long is the story?
[Mary] Well, that's a good question.
[Dan] At least 2000 words. Probably no more than five or six.
[Howard] Okay. So what you're talking about is a short story. The idea that we've thrown in… That your body armor… Or not your body armor, your vehicle armor has occult properties that are problematic when it gets hit in a certain way is sufficient idea to carry a story of that length.
[Brandon] Yeah. And it's not too big.
[Howard] Yeah, it's not too big. I would actually lean… I would move away from alternate universe and put it in our universe so that you can leverage as many of the things that the soldiers who are reading these are familiar with so that when there's an element that is new, they recognize it as new. I mean, they're your target audience. Yeah, you still can make them out to be the heroes, because now they have to go kill the runaway…

[Mary] That is not kill, actually. The IE is improvised explosive, so what if they repurpose the demon?
[Dan] Oh, that's clever.
[Mary] They're trapped, they're behind enemy lines, their armor has failed because the lowest bidder used…
[Howard] The Humvee is upside down and the demon is loose.
[Mary] The demon is loose. One of them realizes that they can use the demon as an improvised explosive device to defeat the enemy.
[Brandon] They bind it to the shell in… The rocket in their rocket launcher, and they're like, "All right, let's just send this baby that way, we can't control him."
[Howard] Oh, oh, oh, oh. I mean, if you want to lean towards humor, I mean, the TLA, the three letter acronym is huge. I.E. Demon and you end with RP Gremlin. Where… Rocket propelled grenade, RPG.
[Mary] I was only coming up with role-playing game, and I'm like…
[Brandon] [garbled]
[Dan] Rocket propelled grenade.
[Howard] Where they've trapped the demon, bound it to a grenade, and fired it into the enemy, where it bounces around and wreaks havoc and they get loose. I don't know how you want to wrap that up, but there you have a little bit of symmetry in title and… Sorry, I went for the easy jokes.
[Brandon] No, I like that. Actually, I like…
[Dan] No, that's actually very clever.
[Brandon] I like the gremlin thing also potentially. It's a way you could go. The demon is a make-things-break demon rather than a I'm-going-to-slaughter-you-all. Because I think that might play into… Soldiers in the field, are right here, and our stuff keeps breaking is kind of like we can't get anything to keep working.
[Mary] Yeah, because gremlins have been part of the military for a long time.
[Brandon] They found out that indeed a gremlin was bound.

[Howard] Oh, that's how the demon was supposed to work! Okay, so we're playing with demon and gremlin interchangeably. You can, for purposes of your quick mythology primer for the soldiers, gremlin is a demon subtype. For purposes of this…
[Dan] Yeah, we can make it up.
[Howard] They bound a gremlin into the armor because the whole point of the gremlin is, as it goes over the explosive device and the explosive device goes off,…
[Brandon] Ah!
[Dan] Yes.
[Howard] The gremlin, in an act of self-preservation, makes it fail.
[Dan] There we go. Yes.
[Howard] Makes it fail. But he doesn't make it fail well enough. It's damaged, the Humvee flips over, the gremlin/demon is now loose, nothing works.
[Dan] Can the demon's name be Snafubar?
[Howard] Yes, it can.
[Mary] It's your story.

[Brandon] All right, Dan. Book of the week. Book of the week, and then we'll get back to Snafubar.
[Dan] Okay. The book of the week. I need to talk this week about one of actually the best books that I've read this year. Which is Redshirts by John Scalzi. It's kind of presented as, and it begins as, a mockery parody of Star Trek. There is an ensign who shows up on a ship that is not the Enterprise, because that's a licensed property, but it's pretty obviously the Enterprise, and can't figure out why everyone on the ship is terrified of being asked to go on an away mission. Eventually realizes that on every away mission, one of these poor little newbies dies in a horrible way. Then Scalzi takes it down the next step, why does this happen? He comes up with a really…
[Brandon] Don't get into the spoilers.
[Dan] I'm not going to give away what the spoilers are. But he actually delves into it and he explains why, and he just… Three or four different times, he'll take you down a direction that you didn't think he was audacious enough to go down.
[Howard] Yes. He explains why, and then explores the ramifications of that, and the further ramifications of that. It's delightful.
[Dan] And just keeps going and going and just deeper down the rabbit hole. By the end of it… He calls it a novel in three codas. By the time you get to the three codas, it's actually turned from this hilarious parody into a really kind of touching emotional story. I was very impressed with it. It's highly recommended.
[Mary] My brother…
[Howard] It's an excellent book for everybody. I think it's an especially excellent book for writers because of some of the material that's in some of the codas.
[Mary] I will also say that my brother read that book before mine, not that I'm bitter.
[Brandon] Howard, how can they get that book?
[Howard] Ah. They can get that book by webbing on out to Start a free trial membership with a credit card number, hopefully your own, and you can get a free book.
[Dan] After you've gotten that book for free, then you can read Mary's.
[Mary] Thanks, guys.

[Brandon] All right, Dan. I want to hand this back to you. Where do you want us to go with our brainstorming session from here? What is working for you, what is not working for you? Do you want us to start talking about a character or…?
[Dan] Well, I think character might be the next way to go, but let's look at the considerations of this. First of all, I love the idea… I really, really liked Howard's ideas of using a gremlin specifically for its malfunctioning properties. Let's make the IEDs malfunction as we drive over them, and therefore we are protected. That suggests to me that we might want this to be an alternate Earth.
[Brandon] Well, you could just go with the idea of we have this new device. We wanted the bidding to happen, and they came through, and we've got this new thing. They're working real well on the other armors, and so we're going to get one. Then put someone in that can…
[Dan] We don't know how it works, but it does. What that means is that we have approximately 5000 words to present the technology, to show the attack, the soldiers figure out what's going on, and then turn it to their own end. That's a lot to [garbled… Handle?]
[Howard] One way to… It's actually really easy to do the setup on this, because you have a couple of the soldiers who are in the Humvee who are talking about the new armor. Basically what they're saying… One of the guys is saying, "Look, the new armor has never actually been field tested. An IED has not gone off under it yet. All we've had is fizzles and whatever else." The other guy says, "Yeah, but that's exactly how it's supposed to work. I don't know, it's like magic." He can say those exact words. "It's like magic. It rolls over the top and the IEDs fail. That's what it's supposed to do."
[Dan] That's what I'm wondering now, is our character… It seems like we need a character who is at least passingly familiar with the supernatural.
[Brandon] So he can identify a gremlin.

[Mary] Well, this is what I was going to… One of the things that I was going to say is if this is an alternate history, but contemporary, it seems like you would have a branch of the military who specialized in this. So that you have your gremlin specialists.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Howard] I think that's too big for this story.
[Dan] Well, see, I can see this going either way. But…
[Mary] I don't… Oh, please, I could do that in 500 words.
[Dan] Whether it's real or whether it's…
[Mary] Scoff!
[Dan] Real world or alternate world, either way we need a character who can identify…
[Brandon] Yeah, the gremlin.
[Dan] That it's a gremlin, and then b, figure out how to bind it to a grenade.

[Brandon] Now I would suggest, if I were writing this story, that the character… The main character who figures out how to bind it to a grenade is not the expert in the gremlins. There is someone else in the team who acts as a sidekick information repository. Because if you give your main character too much expertise in what's going on, he or she won't feel like a fish out of water in the same way that I think we want the reader to feel.

[Howard] Another piece of… Military trope if you will is reading the field manual in the field while under fire…
[Brandon] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] They've come under fire, there's a problem, what the heck has gone wrong, the Humvee… We gotta… This armor piece came open, there's smoke coming out of this hatch, and now suddenly everything's broken… Let me look at the field manual. Wait…
[Brandon] And there's a classified section in it.
[Howard] What are these symbols here in the field manual?
[Brandon] No, I would love that. Like, okay, we… If this happens, break the seal on the back. They're like, "What?" You open it up and it says, "Your gremlin has escaped…" They're like, "What!"
[Dan] Please sit down to read section 7.
[Howard] If you…
[Howard] If you have a shoe leather MRE, which is, I think, it's the chicken breast MRE is the one they refer to as shoe leather. If you have a shoe leather MRE, please open packet number three. The gremlins will totally go for this.
[Brandon] They're like, "Who's got…"
[Howard] I gave all those away.
[Brandon] Yeah. That would be a wonderful way to go.

[Dan] Okay. That could work well. The other direction which I'll throw out, I don't know if it's a better idea, is to actually have somebody there riding along with them who's part of the field test, who knows more about it.
[Brandon] Yeah, the government spook.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, that's a good…
[Brandon] Or the contractor, who's like, "Oh, no."
[Dan] Yeah, the little weasel guy.

[Mary] The other option would be to really just completely pop-culture it, and have one guy on the team who is a D & D guy. He's like, "Dudes, this is a gremlin." Everyone else is like, "No, it's not. What are you going to do, a saving throw?" He's like, "It's a gremlin."
[Howard] So, watch. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fistful of D6's and says, "Watch this." Throws them, and they all come up ones. "No, watch." Again, ones. "What else could that be?
[Mary, Dan] It's a gremlin.

[Mary] The one thing that I… Such we're starting to move towards talking about cast, is that this has to be… If your cap is 5000 words, this has to be a tiny, tiny cast. Which is one of the challenges with military fiction, is that you usually have a troop of people moving together. So you need to come up with a way to make sure that you only have probably no more than three… Three characters.
[Dan] Well, a bomb going off could thin the ranks. But that's horrible to do to soldiers.
[Brandon] Yes. I'm… Mary's the expert here. You cannot… I would say, can't you have like three named characters and then the rest of the squad? That you don't… There's like eight of them, but three are involved in this, and the others are like you two watch the perimeter, you two do this…
[Mary] You… I mean, you…
[Howard] The other thing that works, the Humvee is part of a convoy, and a radio call comes in for the spook. "We need him back at base right now. Turn around and come home." "Wait… We're by… How many do you want us to peel off?" "Just you guys." "This is against procedure, not supposed to do this." "Look, you just cleared this road, you're fine, come on home." So, yes, then we have an isolated single vehicle, five or six people, only two of whom or three of whom are going to be carrying plot lines. The other guys are holding down the perimeter with weapons.
[Mary] I want to go back to what Brandon said, because what he's talking about is with the unnamed characters, is not keeping them in the scene, but giving them a reason to go someplace else. That's an important thing, an important distinction. Sorry. I know you know that, Dan, but for our listeners…
[Howard] And for Howard.
[Dan] Don't assume that I know anything.
[Brandon] I think this went really well. We're actually out of time.
[Dan] Yeah. I've got a very cool story I can write now.
[Brandon] You've got a pretty nifty story. We have to give our listeners a different writing prompt because you guys can't write this story, because this is Dan's story.

[Howard] Okay. No, no! I've got a writing prompt. I've got a writing prompt right now. You may have to go out to the Internet and Google three letter acronyms for the military, okay? But grab some three letter acronyms, note that IED and RPG are off-limits, but grab some three letter acronyms and swap out one of the words for something supernatural and see if a story idea shakes loose for you.
[Brandon] There we are. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.

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