Key points: Select your pitches. Consider whether you want something that plays to your strengths or that makes you stretch out of your comfort zone? What appeals to you? Try sketching scenes? How did this happen? What's the backstory? Where are the problems? What's at stake, what is tempting the character? What would be unexpected, a twist? How long do you want the story to be?
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Brainstorming with Howard!
[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] And I'm in for it.
[Brandon] All right... Howard?
[Howard] I'm actually looking forward to this.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's do it.
[Howard] Let me start with three sort of setting pitches. You guys pick the one that interests you the most. The first is the horrible, filthy story...
[Howard] Set in the...
[Dan] You already got Mary.
[Howard] Mary got sold. Set in a near future that is in many ways very similar to ours. There's been a technological advance in which we all, instead of carrying phones, we all have implants. A serial stalker has multiple restraining orders against him. The way restraining orders are applied is via your implant. The people who you are stalking can always track you... Or who you were stalking, who have restraining orders against you, know where you are. If you get within 300 m of them, you feel pain. This character gets off on pain.
[Brandon] Okay. So masochist with... Okay.
[Howard] Masochist who has found a way to always get his fix. So that's pitch number one. And yes, it can be a horrible, filthy, terrible story. Pitch number two. A pharmacy company, big medical company has for the last couple of years been researching how to make money off the fact that this medical... This drug, this treatment that they are about to release will effectively make people immortal. They know that it will disrupt society, they know it will make a mess, but they are trying to do everything that they can to minimize the impact so that society will survive the change. He's up in his office, and Death appears to him. Death shows up, and... I'll say more about that if that interests you at all. The third one is based on the principle of electronic voice phenomena, which is... Ghost hunters will hunt with microphones and stuff. They don't hear any voices or anything while they're at the site. Then they listen to the tapes after-the-fact and they will often hear voices that none of them heard before, saying things that you can actually hear and understand. I've heard some of these on Tom Carr's tapes, Wasatch Paranormal Investigators.
[Dan] They can be surprisingly easy to understand, and it's pretty creepy.
[Howard] Surprisingly easy to understand and really creepy when nobody else on the tape reacts to it. You realize, "Yeah. That was not somebody saying that because somebody else would have responded." Basically, the story is we have a couple of ghost hunters and one of them has decided to kill the other... Is going to commit a murder. The EVPs... They're doing some listening on site. The EVPs are trying to warn the guy who is about to be a murder victim of the impending treachery.
[Brandon] I like both the second two better than the first, personally.
[Howard] That's good, because I don't like writing about the first guy. Which is why that story has been abandoned.
[Dan] I like the middle one the best, I think. That's the one that has me the most intrigued right now.
[Mary] I think I also lean towards the middle one, mostly because... Only because I think it's going to play to your strengths and be funny.
[Brandon] Dark funny, but funny.
[Mary] Dark funny, but funny. That there's more potential for comedy in there. Plus I really like the juxtaposition of...
[Brandon] So, it plays to Howard's strengths a lot, the middle one. I will agree the middle one's probably the one we should do. I think I like the third story the best, personally.
[Howard] I am happy to play to what you guys don't think are my strengths. I would like an opportunity to write against type. Writing something that... Where there is maybe some character humor in it, but it's a horror story.
[Brandon] I would love to have a horror story from you that's also funny.
[Mary] Yeah. Which...
[Dan] Yeah, but if he wants to do something that's not a comedy, then let's do something that's not a comedy.
[Howard] I mean, you guys pick. What do you?
[Brandon] Well, we'll...
[Mary] I will say that the other thing that appeals to me about number two is I like the juxtaposition of high technology with this very... With this mythic element. I think that that can be fun.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go with it.
[Dan] There's ways to do that that aren't really very funny at all.
[Brandon] The eve of the man about to release... The CEO about to release immortality drug, gets a visit from Death. Who's going to what? Try to talk him out of it?
[Howard] Yes. Death... The scene that I have written that sort of talked me into this is Death explaining to him, "If you release this, everybody you know, the whole Board of Directors, everybody who is close to you, will die in the next seven days. I will personally guarantee that. So you have to not release this." He says, "Well, you gotta make me a counter-offer. Because right now all you're doing is threatening me, and I don't take kindly to threatening." That was my setup. My thought on this is that Death, the hooded figure that we see, is an extra-dimensional race... It's not just one dude... That feeds off of the passing of our spirits from this life into the next one. If that stops happening naturally, they will have to start harvesting. If they start harvesting, then... That's actually something they don't want to do for some reason or another.
[Dan] Well, it could be, for example, as a nice horrific way to go, that they can't... That they... Part of his threat is, if you make everyone immortal, we're going to make you our harvester. You will personally be responsible for making sure people continue to die.
[Brandon] So how could they force that? How could they force it?
[Mary] Or... Because... The reason that they don't want to do this is because they have experience with harvesting before, which was the Black Plague.
[Brandon] Yeah. Or something like that. Hey, a little bit of the secret history.
[Mary] Yes, a secret history.
[Howard] Exactly. A secret history element would be fun.
[Mary] And that they very nearly over harvested the Earth.
[Brandon] His people are not good at restraining themselves, so he's like... He could even be like a... "I've been around for a long time. I am more restrained. But if the floodgates open, the common people will just take... If it stops coming, they will get so hungry, they will break through."
[Howard] One of the horrific mythological... Mythological? The mythos elements I was thinking about, what is the nature of the human soul? The nice version is the energy state change when we die, the release of the spirit, is what they are harvesting. The spirit itself escapes into whatever it needs to. The not nice one is that when they feed, the spirit is damaged and it's actually painful and torturous. If you are one of those people who is unfortunate enough to see Death when you are dying, you don't have an afterlife to look forward to.
[Brandon] Or it's... You're going to be tortured for a while.
[Howard] Or you're going to be tortured for a while. Yeah. It's... I wasn't sure... I know which one I like better because I prefer happy endings.
[Brandon] Which... How... Where do you want to go? Because the first one allows you to maintain the mystique of death. We're an extra dimensional race, we don't know what happens to the spirit, like an atom being split there is energy released and we feed on that. Then the spirit goes somewhere.
[Howard] Okay. That appeals to me. The... Maintaining the mystique of the beyond and that they are feeding off of...
[Mary] The passage itself.
[Howard] They are feeding off of the passage. The... But the... Sorry, I... Brain cramp. There has to be a reason why them harvesting is problematic. I mean, I like the overfishing sort of...
[Dan] Well, it could be that it's a very drug-like reaction for them and that they have to restrain themselves constantly to avoid becoming addicted to it. If they have to actively start harvesting us, then the likelihood of addiction becomes much worse. You could even go further into secret history and say, "You know some of these people that your culture considers serial killers? Those are actually us who have gone rogue and I just complete drug addicts of death."
[Brandon] More secret history, while I'm thinking of it, that would be cool is if someone... Black Plague... Someone actually discovered the secret of immortality, they created whatever, the philosopher's stone, whatever it is they're trying...
[Mary] Yeah. I was just looking to see where Ponce de Leon fell. Unfortunately, not someplace useful in the timeline.
[Brandon] But you could find something in that timeline, I think. You could be like, this scientist, whoever's alive at that time. There's going to be somebody. Alchemy's around.
[Howard] I could still work... Depending on the length of the story, I could still work Ponce de Leon in there. We have the... Our protagonist, our corporate guy, say, "Wait, you mean like Ponce de Leon and the fountain of youth?" "Oh, yes, that was a nice cover story, but it actually happened during the Black Plague with this dude that we've never heard of..."
[Brandon] Or it could just be Ponce de Leon... All this happened... They came to him and made this same deal, and he's like, "Oh, okay."
[Dan] You could actually start before Death shows up with that piece and say, "We in our research found that scientist whomever was close to the secret of immortality, and then didn't take the next step." Then Death shows up and says, "Actually, he did. That's what caused the Black Plague."
[Brandon] We gotta stop for book of the week. We gotta stop. I'm going to cut in here for book of the week.
[Dan] Oh, a book of the week.
[Brandon] Because we have something horrific also. We have a Wells brother book.
[Dan] Yay. It's actually not super horrific, but my brother's sequel. His first one was called Variant, and it ended on a crazy cliffhanger that has had you all salivating for the second book. The second book is called Feedback. It is, in my opinion, a million times better. I loved the first one. The second one really blew me away. It takes all the crazy stuff introduced in the first book and follows it down all kinds of very cool science fictional ramifications, shows some bizarre uses of this technology, and really kind of gets your mind going. And has a really tense storyline. So... Feedback by Robison Wells.
[Brandon] And they can get that?
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Support the podcast by telling Audible that that's how you found them. Start a free trial membership 30 days long, pick up a copy of Feedback by Robison Wells and pick up a copy of Variant for 30% off.
[Brandon] There you go. All right.
[Mary] So the counteroffer... Sorry... Is that Death says, "Yeah. So the counteroffer is I'll let you use it and I'll introduce you to this secret cabal of immortal people."
[Brandon] You can become one of the Illuminati. You and your family. I'll give you and 15 people you choose immortality. So it is tempting. Not only do you get immortality, but you get to join the group that is ruling your people.
[Howard] Now the... I want to have an upbeat ending. Okay? In fact, I want to play against type of "Oh, the corporation discovers something supercool and gets bought off because somebody makes him a better offer." I want human immortality to actually get released. I want there to be a win scenario... A win-lose scenario where we win and Death loses.
[Brandon] I like that. That's very much not where anyone expects us to go.
[Dan] Okay. The way that we've presented this, we could have Death leave. The guy at that point reveals the twist that this secret cabal of immortal people who have all been contacted by Death throughout history has seen this coming and got to the CEO first and gave him... They're sick of being kind of bullied around by the aliens, and so they've given him some kind of something that will end the rule...
[Mary] They have, in fact, been working on this through their entire very long lifetime.
[Dan] This entire thing could be a con job on the aliens.
[Howard] Now here is a thought. If Death and his people need to feed, then... And need to feed in order to survive, then they can die.
[Howard] That piece right there... I mean, this guy's got a team of scientists behind him. It occurred to me that maybe he makes that connection. "Oh. You need to eat to live. Well, if you need to eat to live, then there are things that can kill you. Starvation being one of them. What are the other things? I'm going to look for that. Then when you begin your horrible harvest, we will be armed with... I don't know... Space syringes."
[Mary] Well, if it's... But if they eat energy, then all you have to do is come up with corrupting a waveform of some sort that...
[Dan] I love this idea that this was all preplanned. It may be that the whole point was to get Death to come and present this guy with the offer. While he was there, infect him, and he goes back and spreads this infection among the rest of his people.
[Brandon] We're talking about two different stories here, and Howard has to make the call between them. The first story is, the whole story is a conversation with Death and by the end, we have the twist ending and we've pulled a con on Death. So it's... The conversation has to give us all the foreshadowing with him acting ignorant that ends up with the con. The second story is, Death shows up, there is a short sequence between them, the guy says, "Okay, I'll think about it." Then immediately goes into we've got to find a way around this. The story is actually a problem story. We are going to figure out how to defeat these things. You write a story about that. One is about the conversation, one is about the fight.
[Howard] If I am allowed to write a conversation, I will write and write and write and you don't get Jack for descriptions because all I do with Schlock Mercenary is write dialogue anyway. So a story that forces me to block action sequences in prose would be more challenging.
[Howard] Now, the first story... I'm not saying that the first story isn't interesting. I love the first story. But let's crawl out of my comfort zone a little bit.
[Mary] Let me also just raise one other flag about those two while we're thinking about it. Which is that those two stories are very different lengths.
[Mary] First story is... You can probably...
[Brandon] You could do that in 2500 words easy.
[Howard] Yeah. First story is 2500 words.
[Mary] I was going to say 1500 words.
[Brandon] Do you see the epic fantasy writer over here versus the more restrained fantasy writer?
[Mary] But, yeah, so we're looking at the...
[Dan] The other one...
[Brandon] The other one's 7000.
[Dan] The other one, you're looking at several scenes of research, potentially. Potentially very creepy research scenes, because if he's trying to figure out what they feed on, then he needs to know what energy is released at the point of death, which means he has to do a lot of analyzation of death.
[Brandon] Right. You have to... The cool thing... Direction to go here would be what are they actually feeding on? What are things like souls? Is there such a thing?
[Mary] He has to contact some ghost hunters!
[Brandon] That could be useful.
[Howard] Now I've got a whole novel, because I roll in the EVP storyline. Well, this, fair listener, is where novels come from. You have a good idea and another good idea...
[Dan] And you moosh them together.
[Howard] You realize that when they marry, they have 400,000 pages worth of babies.
[Dan] Now, if you want to do though... I'm intrigued by this research of death because there's actually a lot of kind of folk science that's been done on that. I mean, people have actually calculated the weight of a human soul and things like that.
[Howard] I would love to... Oh, I know. I would love to debunk... Not debunk, but acknowledge the debunking of all of that in one swoop and say, "Yeah. All of that's garbage. I gotta reach past that. I gotta find something else." One of the things that occurred to me is that in order for Death to appear, he has to manifest himself in some way, which might make him vulnerable.
[Mary] You know that could...
[Brandon] Let me throw out what I've got here. You could make the twist... By the way, listeners, they're looking at the clock. We're going to go longer on this one, because actually describing your ideas took about five minutes. We'll go to 20 at least on this. So, the thing that is that they are feeding on, they say it's death? It could be the emotion at the moment of death. It could be... Like they're saying that, they call themselves Death, but that utter panic that a human being only fears... Because that... Otherwise we would never know about them, so they have to feed on people who sometimes come back from it. That's why we have those whole folklores, because it will work for them if you think you're going to die, if it's that moment and then you don't... They've still gotten their fix. So the answer is, he's going to release the immortality drug. You just have it set up, everyone knows it's coming out, but they tweak the formula to make it once you take this, you are just like peaceful. It's like he's drugging the whole population. Everybody's going to want this stuff. Death can come in, they will commit this genocide, but they will starve anyway. That's his solution.
[Howard] Yeah, that's horrific.
[Brandon] That's horrific.
[Dan] The starving aliens are probably going to kill every last one of us in desperation.
[Brandon] Well... You could make the argument that... If you bring out the plague and you're like, "This is what we did because we got within an inch of death..."
[Mary] What if...
[Brandon] And they came and did this and there's enough of them to depopulate a country. He's pulling a "To save the world, I'm getting rid of... I'm going to sacrifice this and I don't know what country it's going to be. I'm not committing the ultimate crime." He is still a noble character, but...
[Howard] He's still going to feel like a monster to me.
[Brandon] Yes, he is.
[Mary] What if it actually takes an enormous amount of energy for them to cross over into our world? But it's a happy accident that our souls release energy through theirs. So he realizes that Death is in fact bluffing. That there's no way for the entire population to come over and harvest everybody. Which is getting rid of the black death scenario...
[Brandon] I really like the black death thing, though.
[Mary] I like...
[Howard] I like the black death scenario.
[Brandon] The secret history is great for this.
[Dan] What are the...
[Mary] Maybe they've all... When they manifest over here, they all manifest as the size of fleas.
[Dan] Or rats.
[Mary] Oh, dear.
[Dan] What is the method of immortality? Is it a drug?
[Howard] I hadn't really made up my mind. I mean, because I'm a sci-fi guy, it's a mixture of...
[Dan] If that itself is a form of energy, like an energy wave he can just disperse across the planet, that itself could be tweaked to mess up the aliens.
[Brandon] All right. I think we're running...
[Howard] All right. Yeah. I'm going to have to...
[Brandon] You're going to have to think about this. We may have to do another session with Howard. This one...
[Howard] Or I may have to actually sit down and write the story and let it...
[Dan] See where it takes you.
[Mary] I went and did an outline last night, so...
[Dan] Yeah, if she can do it, why can't you do it?
[Mary] Yeah, come on.
[Brandon] Writing prompt.
[Mary] Step it up. Writing prompt. Pick a major event in history and then write a secret history where Death comes back to take over.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.