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Writing Excuses 7.51: Brainstorming with Mary

Writing Excuses 7.51: Brainstorming with Mary


Key Points: Start with several thumbnail sketches, short ideas for different stories, and see which one grabs you. Brainstorm it! What are the key elements in the thumbnail sketch. What are they like? What is the conflict? What is the ending? What is the beginning? What are the stakes? What can you handle in the form you want to write (short, novel, series)? Can you borrow something from the Hero's Journey or other plots?

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 51.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Brainstorming with Mary.
[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. We did this with Dan. We thought it was a blast, so we're going to do it with Mary. She's actually going to pitch at us three stories, I believe?
[Mary] Yeah. The way I normally work is that I do a whole bunch of what I call thumbnail sketches, where I just jot down a couple of different ideas of different stories, usually wildly different. I see which one grabs me. So this time, I'm going to read them. These are one little paragraph things. We'll see which one grabs the guys. Then we' re going to brainstorm that. Just as an aside, this is also the way I work with my agent. I will send her one paragraph synopses of the novels I'm interested in, and she'll tell me which ones she thinks she can sell.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Okay. So, story one. On a tidally locked world, or a world with a tidally locked moon, an explorer sails over the curve of the world and sees the moon for the first time. The coastal city he visits is, of course, completely different culturally, and because their nights aren't dark, more advanced technologically.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Okay. Idea two. A reality show for wizards. This is first-person, as though he's talking to the confession box. What happens when you strand a whole bunch of wizards on an island, and film them trying to perform increasingly complex magic to stay in the game?
[Brandon] [laughter]
[Mary] The main character thinks that one of the wizards is exerting mind control, but isn't sure if he's been influenced yet or not. Or, as an alternate plot, he's eventually asked to cross an ethical line and raise the dead. How much does he really want to win?
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Idea three. Werewolves are real and passed by a virus. Although there is a cure, most werewolves choose not to be cured, claiming it as a subculture, like the hearing impaired. A sommelier uses his superior olfactory sense in his job in the wine industry, but wants to keep his condition a secret because of the social stigma. Then he falls in love with one of the winemakers at an event. She invites him to come to the winery, but he has to turn it down because it's over his time of the month. He's only contagious when he's in wolf form, but at what point does he confess to her that he's a werewolf?
[Brandon] Okay. I'm voting wizards.
[Dan] Yeah, I would vote... I'm actually tempted by the tidally locked one, because...
[Howard] Tidally locked is more interesting to me, but...
[Brandon] Well, okay, here's the thing...
[Howard] I'm willing to be outvoted.
[Brandon] Here's the thing. On tidally locked, you don't have as much. It may be more fun for us to explore.
[Dan] that's... See, that's what I was going to say. There's no story, there's just a setting.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] This is one that I've been wanting to do for a long time.
[Brandon] Let's do that one.
[Mary] And have been stumped, because I can come up with this world and setting, and I have yet to come up with a story to go with it.

[Brandon] Okay. The one I want to read the most is the wizard one, but you actually have the whole plot of that. And even the perspective and everything. So I'd say, let's go tidally locked. Okay. So. On a tidally locked world... This means that the moon stays in one place?
[Mary] Correct.
[Brandon] With the planet at all times. He sails over... Is he the first person who has ever done this?
[Mary] From his... Yes.
[Brandon] Yeah. He's like Columbus.
[Howard] Leif Erikson. He's the Leif Erikson...
[Brandon] There might be people who have done before, but... Okay.
[Mary] Yeah. My idea roughly is that... It's actually more like Marco Polo.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary]That... China was significantly more advanced than Europe at that point. So he goes to this place, and he's like, "Everything is different."
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] But I have no... Aside from the my worldview is shaken...
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary] I have no conflict yet.

[Brandon] Okay. So, throw it at us. Do you want us to start talking conflicts?
[Mary] Yeah! Whee-hee-hee!
[Brandon] Okay. What is the conflict, guys? And what is our ending? That's another big one.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] Because the other one we started with an ending already, because Howard had already brainstormed it.
[Howard] Sorry. Let's...

[Dan] Okay. One potential conflict here is that they have developed better seafaring technology then the first side. So they're actually gearing up for an invasion.
[Mary] Oh, that's interesting.
[Dan] They're ready to mount one, and he knows that his country's navy has no prayer of defending.

[Brandon] Okay. Now I really would like it if they didn't know anything was over the ocean until he arrived. Because then it puts the invasion on him. There's the potential of they thought that the world ended. They now realize it didn't. They've already conquered everything over here. "Oh, there's proof from the other side." Some can count it as like a religious sign. There had been talk of sending exploration that way. Someone comes, and like, "The gods... The moon or whatever, has sent this person to us to show us there are wretches to be had."
[Mary] Oh, you know what? I think that the reason that the people from the world... That side of the planet have never gone to the other side is because they have sailed outside of the moon. And the idea of being in complete darkness...
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] They've always turned around and gone back.

[Howard] When you... At risk of turning it on its head, the side that has more light at night? The reason for them to be more technologically advanced... Well, I guess they can get more done without the need for light at night. But you could actually flip that on its head, and say that the dark side is more technologically advanced, because necessity is the mother of invention.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Howard] They had to come up with lighting. So if we have him being an explorer who literally sails into the dark...
[Mary] Or sails out of the darkness.
[Howard] No, he sails from the... He's from the light side.
[Mary] Oh, yeah. I'm not as interested in that.
[Howard] You're not int... Okay. That's fine.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] No, the thing that really interests me about this is the idea of seeing the moon for the first time.
[Howard] Okay.
[Mary] And I have to say that in...
[Brandon] I think you can make an argument for either side being the more technological.
[Howard] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
[Brandon] Anthropologically, I think the side that has darkness, but not complete darkness, is going to have the advantage.
[Mary] Yeah, I think so, but I think you're right, that the arguments could be made either way. One thing that I'm also particularly interested in in exploring with this is the idea of the cultural differences.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] That there would be particularly religious differences and whether or not...

[Brandon] Well, I love the idea religiously of we can't sail to where the moon can't see us.
[Howard] Yeah. If you sail... The sun rises and sets and is temporary, and gives us a warming influence during the day, but the moon is constant.
[Brandon] That's actually pretty cool, because it gives a reverse of the way most earth cultures came when they... If there is a sun god, the sun god is among the highest and most important of the gods. There you could say the sun god is the evil one. Day is the... Because it's transient, and the moon is always there. And soft.

[Howard] Now, let me think about this for a moment. The moon is tidally locked to the world they live on. But the body is...
[Mary] It's still rotating.
[Howard] Orbit is still rotating.
[Mary] Which means that they would get... That side of the planet would get more solar eclipses.
[Howard] It would get more solar eclipses. The only tides that they would get would be solar tides.
[Brandon] Which are not that strong.
[Howard] Well, they're not that strong, but they're measurable. It's a...

[Brandon] So here's a question for you. Would you want... We're going a lot world building. I think we should go to culture after this, but what about the concept of this is a very bright sun for whatever reason. I don't know. We'd have to look at the science people. I'm the fantasy guy.
[Dan] [laughter]
[Brandon] Very bright sun. During the day, it's actually... There is a period of such heat and light that it's hard to get anything done. During the night, you can be productive all night, because that very bright sun translates into a modestly bright moon which means that's the great time to get stuff done.
[Mary] Yeah. I have actually thought about saying that it's not actually... That the moon is a moon like the size of ours, but that they are on a tidally locked moon, and that it's like orbiting Saturn.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay.
[Mary] So that the planetary body that is in the sky is massive.
[Brandon] Right. Right. So it's...
[Dan] Would they...
[Mary] And kicks out an enormous amount of light.
[Brandon] Enormous amount of light.
[Dan] Huh. Yeah.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's go to our book of the week actually. I'm going to pass this one at Mary, and let you do The Broken Kingdoms.
[Mary] Oh, yes. This is by N. K. Jemisin. This is the second book in her series. One of the things that I particularly enjoy about it is that she starts exploring very different parts of the world than she did with the first book. You could, in many ways, pick this book up as the first book in a series, but there are also things that tie back. It's just... The world building in this is so lovely, and the magic systems... She has multiple interlocking magic systems. It's wonderful, I think.
[Brandon] All right. And Howard, how can you...
[Howard] you can start a 15 day, or maybe it's a 30 day... I should look it up... Free trial membership and download a copy of N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms. That's the second book, following last year's 100,000 Kingdoms...
[Mary] Correct.
[Brandon] Which was one of my favorite books last year that I read, so...
[Howard] It was a brilliant book.

[Howard] Hey, Mary. I love the idea of the orbiting Saturn thing, because when you're orbiting a gas giant that big, or a world that big, you can start talking about the external magnetic field as an additional influence. Which could be doing fun things with ocean life...
[Brandon] Hello. Can it be doing fun things with navigation, too?
[Howard] It can be... Yeah, it can be doing fun things with all kinds of stuff. It could be one of the reasons why nobody's left the dark side via ocean voyage in a long time. Because there are things happening in the water. It occurred to me that if... You mentioned Marco Polo... A possible conflict is this guy has staked the family fortune on...
[Mary] Oh!
[Howard] Building a trade route. He gets to the other side and realizes one, I have nothing to offer, and two, I have just led the conquistadors back to my house.
[Mary] Oh, that's interesting.
[Brandon] I do... That's... Just before we move off that, shall we see if there is any other conflicts we can throw out? Because that's the part you're having trouble with.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] World building doesn't seem to be as much a problem. So... What other potential conflicts could there be for this story?

[Howard] Well, you put other people on the boat, and you can build all kinds of character conflicts there.

[Brandon] He could be escaping something?
[Mary] He could be escaping something...
[Brandon] It could be the opposite of like the Columbus thing. [Garbled: they could meet? Then you neat?] And decided to sail over the side of the ocean because they wanted to get away.
[Mary] It could also be a... He was leaving his country to escape religious persecution?
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Mary] And then arrives at a place that is not only colonized completely, but by like tot... You know...

[Brandon] Wow. So it could even be like a ship full of religious... You know, we're like, "We are going to escape and there is a promised land that's left in our records that we know about where they don't have to deal with the tyranny of the sun every day or at night... Or we always don't have to..." You know what I mean, there's this beautiful thing. They go searching for it, and they get there and it's just this horribly, horribly worse culture or religious tolerance reasons.
[Mary] Or we could say that the ship that he is on is one that is from the side of the world with the moon and he is returning with them as...
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Mary] You know, that...
[Brandon] They show up just all of a sudden?
[Mary] Yeah. And that he's like, "The moon? What are you guys talking about, the moon, the moon, the moon?"

[Brandon] I really like it if he discovers it, though.
[Mary] Yeah, that's good.
[Brandon] Or she. It doesn't have to be a him. I love the idea...
[Howard] The other thing that I love about seeing the moon for the first time is that if it is a gas giant, you are going to have a significant chunk of the horizon that lights up at once.
[Mary] Yes.
[Howard] So mythologies about sailing far enough to see the great crescent, sailing far enough to see...
[Brandon] Yeah. To see the seas start on fire...
[Mary] Yeah.
[Howard] Yeah, the sea on fire. In fact, if you do things with the atmosphere... I don't know if you're familiar with effects like the green flash and things like that...
[Mary] Yeah.
[Howard] You play games with the spectrum and the atmosphere and so on and so forth, and you can have all kinds of mystical stuff about what that planet looks like.
[Brandon] Okay, we keep coming back to world building. That's not where we want to be.
[Howard] Sorry, sorry, sorry.
[Brandon] Okay, stop it, Howard.

[Dan] [laughter] Okay so you'd... Howard, you mentioned something about how that kind of proximity to a massive planet could do things with the electrical fields and magnetic fields. Maybe the conflict is that his compass doesn't work anymore, and he can't get home.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] Or maybe the conflict is that he somehow becomes ill. There's something on the other side, either magnetically or just pure plant life, that is killing him.

[Howard] Oh, my gosh. They are two... They are divergent species. They've been apart for long enough...
[Mary] That they would be divergent.
[Howard] That they have adapted differently to the magnetic properties that... Magnetic sunshine and magnetic shadow...
[Mary] [garbled -- or just lighting difference?] Yeah.
[Brandon] All right.

[Mary] The other thing that I'm thinking is if I go back to the MICE quotient idea, if the story starts with him sailing towards, then structurally speaking, it should end with him either deciding to stay there or returning.
[Brandon] Or returning. Yeah.
[Mary] So if I just go with the easy one, which is the return, then one of my conflicts can be things on that side that are keeping him from departing.
[Brandon] Right. And one of those could be the... Like... I really like the idea... I've latched completely on to this "I have just informed the conquistadors of where we live."
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] So the conflict can be "Do I go back and warn my people? How do I get back and warn my people?" That could be one, or it could be a "I've got to find a way to convince them not to follow?" It's like that because it's like... Trick them in some way into thinking using their religion...
[Mary] Yes. And you know if he... If his side of the world is the side that has had to invent artificial lighting, much more effective artificial lighting than the side with the moon, then that's one of the tricks that he can use. Like, "Look, I've got the moon in a box."
[Brandon] Uhm-huh. I'm liking this. They're much more warfare wise, they're amazing compared to his people. So he has to come up with a way to trick them, that if they follow him, they will all die.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] And he has to like... It would be really cool if he were like seeking religious freedom...
[Mary] Uh-huh...
[Brandon] But then on this side, he has to reinforce their horrible religious intolerances in order to escape and warn his people.

[Howard] Another thing to bear in mind, if we play the mild speciation card, is that after crossing the horizon, crossing that magnetic threshold, he may start getting sick.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm not sure if I want to do magnetic threshold, just because I think that's going to be really hard to get across in a fantasy.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] True. And if you're...
[Mary] In a short story. In novel form...
[Howard] You're doing short. You're doing short. Yeah.

[Brandon] No, but... We've got a plot here. We've got a great plot. We don't have time to really dig into it, but I love plots of I've got to trick the whole species...
[Dan] [laughter]
[Brandon] Into thinking that they will die if they follow me. It's very much a reversal...
[Mary] If you follow me, I will drown the moon. Because he knows what happens if you go.
[Brandon] Ah. Yeah. Something like that. Exactly. That exactly. I have to go be a sacrifice and tricks them into letting him go, using their own religion in a very clever and interesting way. We keep saying he again.
[Mary] It could...
[Brandon] For some reason, I actually feel female works better for this story, for whatever reason. But I don't know. It could be male. We've got the whole moon is female thing our side, and so a guy discovering the moon is more thematically...

[Howard] Now, if you want to lift... If you want to lift a piece of Hero's Journey from this, the Return with the Elixir... If on the way back, it's not just the knowledge of having seen the moon, there is some piece of technology that he is bringing back to, or she is bringing back to her people.
[Brandon] Yeah. He definitely should.
[Howard] With a...
[Brandon] With a warning this isn't going to hold them off forever. I've like convinced the Emperor that if he follows, that we'll drown the moon, but there is a huge contingent that when he dies... We have 10 years to modernize, and I've got this piece of technology... I've stolen fire from the gods. We've got to figure out how this works, or we're all doomed. That's a great ending.
[Howard] I've stolen steel from Damascus.
[Mary] Yeah. Probably gunpowder.
[Brandon] Yeah. I've stolen gunpowder, and we've gotta have... We've got 10 years to jump from 1200 A.D. to 1700 A.D.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Dan] Cool.
[Mary] Okay. Cool. Thanks, guys.

[Brandon] That was great. So what can we do...
[Howard] For a writing prompt?
[Brandon] What did we throw out that you didn't like? You didn't like the reverse, that he's from the dark... Leaving the moon for the first time and going to the side with the sun...
[Mary] I didn't like that.
[Howard] You didn't like speciation.
[Mary] Well, the magnetic...
[Brandon] No, she didn't.
[Dan] It was the magnetic...
[Mary] It was the magnetic.
[Dan] Threshold.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's do that. Magnetic fields cause sickness when you leave your region and go into another. Write a story about someone who is dealing with that sickness in an interesting way. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out. They actually have, if you go to, they have Legion up there. You... there's no trial, there's no strings attached, you just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen if you haven't already. You can go to to download it and give it a try.
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