Key points: Consider the characters and their situation. What could be happening? How long a story do you want? What could happen to stir up the situation? What does the protagonist want? What does the villain want? Why is the villain against the protagonist? Consider where this story fits in the larger history.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Brainstorming with Howard, again!
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we weren't smart enough last time.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I need a bonus story for Schlock Mercenary, The Body Politic.
[Brandon] Now, this is different. We're not brainstorming because the last one didn't work. Howard actually liked what we came up with. But we realized he needs help. It isn't for a short story. It's for a bonus story, an actual thing that will have pictures.
[Howard] Actual thing that will have pictures.
[Brandon] Which... I'm excited.
[Dan] Yeah, I've never done this.
[Howard] Yeah, this'll be fun.
[Brandon] We have to come up with cool things that we can make Howard illustrate. What's the hardest thing to illustrate?
[Howard] Oh, God.
[Dan] Well, he's already done the giant elephant brawl.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. People made out of hands?
[Howard] People made out of... That's actually not all that difficult.
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Howard] No, it's... The difficult one, it would be keeping six unique elephants straight during an elephant brawl that has human-sized people in it. I've done that, and I'm not doing it again.
[Dan] How about a scene where it's all in the dark? So you can't actually see anybody. It's just blank, black panels.
[Howard] Actually, I've done that too. The standard cartoonist's trick for that is just draw the eyeballs and change the facial expressions.
[Howard] Here is the setup. Within the book, there are a lot of characters that are interesting. The ones that I want to feature in the bonus story, because we haven't come back to them in the main arc of the comic, are the former ambassador Breya Andreyasn and her husband, Haban.
[Brandon] Right. He's like a cyborg thing.
[Howard] He is... Yes. He is cybernetic. He's a human body with a regrown brain that has an AI living in it, and so...
[Brandon] Where was that AI originally?
[Howard] It was originally in his armor, and he still has... The AI has grown in both places. Okay? I don't want this story to focus on that.
[Brandon] No, we just need to know who he is.
[Howard] Yeah, you just have to know who he is, and the fact that he's AI and living a human life with a human wife is...
[Brandon] She is the sister of Kevin?
[Howard] She's the sister of Kevin Andreyasn.
[Brandon] She once owned the Tagon's Toughs?
[Howard] She once owned the company. She has also been an admiral through political connections. Backstory that you probably won't need. And an ambassador again through political connections. What I had in mind... She's not an ambassador anymore. She and Haban have had some of their memories changed with regard to the story line in Body Politic. What she and Haban have now been assigned to do is work on the Council/committee/department... I don't know, we can hammer all that out... Of Uplift. So that it is the two of them and, even though I said I don't want to draw them, elephants and dolphins and monkeys and ponies and dogs and whatever else, and I'm not sure what the plot is. My first thought is that they are in sort of a caretaker position, and it turns out that there's a real problem that they need to solve. So...
[Dan] Explain for us very quickly exactly the state that uplift is in, in the Schlockverse. Because I know that there are uplifted creatures and characters already.
[Howard] Yup. Chimps, dolphins, elephants, dogs are all uplifted to the point that they are full citizens. There are cultural taboos... Making fun of an ape for bananas is considered a racial slur. Okay? Those sorts of jokes don't play well. We are welcome to make up new jokes, if we want to.
[Brandon] All right. I'm going to start throwing ideas at you.
[Howard] Good. Go!
[Brandon] All right. Uplifted animals want to uplift the rest of their species. Plot one. Plot two. Uplifted animals decide they want to have a stronger say in things, so they're going to pick another species and uplift them.
[Howard] More seats in the Senate.
[Brandon] More seats in the Senate, so we're going to uplift something else. Or one of the species decides they want to de-lift one of the other species, because... For whatever reason. Or they want to de-lift humans. Or something like that.
[Dan] Or they...
[Mary] Or there is a... Go on.
[Dan] Go ahead.
[Mary] Or there is a disease that is causing them to undo... The uplift to undo.
[Dan] I was going to say a particular uplifted species, maybe dolphins or something, considers themselves to be so intelligent that they would like to uplift humans to match them.
[Howard] I like that. I like that. Now I'm not saying that that's the only one I like. The... One thing I need to throw down here is the page constraint. I have the equivalent of... I have about eight pages to work with.
[Mary] You need an intimate story.
[Howard] I can go a little bit longer, but...
[Brandon] So it's half what you had in the one we...
[Howard] It's half what we had in the one that we project in-depth'ed. I can go a little longer, but...
[Mary] Well, how would these uplifted an... The ones that they are caretaking. How would they react if one of them got a pet that was not uplifted?
[Brandon] That was...
[Howard] I have touched on that. When elephants... When sentient elephants and nonsentient elephants share space, you begin wondering if the sentient elephant is some sort of a pedophile. It is taboo in... It is strongly taboo. If... Like if it's a male and female.
[Mary] Well, specifically, what I'm thinking is, since Breya was formerly an ambassador, people probably still send her gifts. And she's highly connected. If someone sends her a pet...
[Howard] Okay. Somebody sends her a box poodle, a purse poodle. How do the uplifted dogs in the Uplift Senate... I can't say Uplift Congress because that's David Brin's word.
[Dan] Well, it could... That could actually be intentionally done to start an incident that would get her removed as ambassador.
[Brandon] Then you find out the dog actually is uplifted and has been sparking this. The dog sent itself.
[Mary] Sparky! The dog sent itself?
[Brandon] Yes. The dog sent itself, in order to...
[Dan] The dog sent itself or the dog sent a pet...
[Howard] Okay. I can work with that joke. The dog... Because that's the... I licked my own postage. Yeah, sort of. I can play with that.
[Dan] Okay, we've got a dirty joke and Howard's in!
[Howard] I licked my own postage is not a dirty jo... Oh.
[Mary] Well, that didn't take very long.
[Brandon] No, no. Are you liking that idea best?
[Howard] Okay. No, no, that's okay. No. I'm liking that. So dogs...
[Howard] We're going to be focusing on the dogs.
[Brandon] Are there maybe breeds of dogs that were never uplifted, and other breeds were? That could be something really cool in this.
[Dan] So that could be a plot point that... No one ever uplifted the Chihuahuas or whatever, so when the Chihuahua shows up, they don't think twice. Then she realizes A, it's a conspiracy, B, my dog's uplifted, C, someone's been uplifting Chihuahuas without authorization.
[Mary] I think the crested Chinese hairless dog, because I just want to...
[Howard] That's going to be more fun to draw. That's going to be more fun to draw. Now at the risk of throwing more characters and more complexity in just because I like the title. The title dog and pony show...
[Howard] Is too good to pass up if we've already got dogs. Give me a pony. I need a pony.
[Brandon] You need a pony. She gets sent a dog and a pony.
[Mary] The pony is the mastermind.
[Brandon] Oh, the... Someone [mucked?] with the pony...
[Mary] Or there are...
[Brandon] Oh, it's My Little Pony thing. You could do so much if someone uplifted ponies to make My Little Ponies. [Maniacal laughter]
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens. Oh, dear heavens. Okay.
[Dan] Now you might be running into copyright issues, though.
[Brandon] Oh, he did a BattleStar Galactica one.
[Howard] Oh, no no no no no. I can totally have...
[Dan] That's true. This is totally parody, so you can do it.
[Howard] I can totally have ponies.
[Brandon] A planet of My Little Pony creatures.
[Howard] With nanotech tattoos.
[Dan] Oh. Oh, I love this.
[Mary] Eight pages! Eight pages.
[Brandon] Eight pages.
[Howard] I know, eight pages.
[Brandon] Evil masterminds. You have koalas as evil masterminds, why not ponies?
[Howard] Nope, it's... I like this. Okay. So what is...
[Dan] You could come up with wonderful names for them.
[Howard] No... Let's... We just had an episode on short stories.
[Dan] Nano sparkles.
[Howard] We just had... Stop it. We just had an episode on short stories. Let me ask the difficult question. Let me ask the difficult questions. We have a villain and we have a protagonist. Our protagonist, Breya and/or Haban, what do they want? I think the... From where they start in the story, what they want is to be respected in this new job. They feel like they've been thrown into a caretaker position. It's a political backwater, and they want to be useful. They don't want to have been put out to pasture.
[Mary] That is too vague for a short story.
[Howard] I realize that is too vague. I've got to find something specific to...
[Brandon] Well, here's the thing. If they're suddenly a part of something important and they don't know it... That's why there has to be a sabotage attempt set. They want to be important. That's... Actually that might not be...
[Howard] Let me reword it. What they want is to not have to do this job anymore. They want an ambassador position. They want a different job. As a result of this conflict, they're actually good with this job because they see that this job is important and needs to be done and is far more important than the people who assigned them to it...
[Brandon] Thought it was.
[Howard] Thought it was. I think that's a good destination point.
[Mary] Yeah, that's a good arc.
[Howard] Now what does our villain want? What does... What does the pony Snow Queen...
[Mary] Well, let me ask this. So we've got robots and cyborgs and all of this. What if your pony is actually uplifted Chihuahua brain implanted in a pony.
[Brandon] Ha ha. Whoa! Let's think on that for a minute and do our book of the week.
[Howard] No. I... Yeah, book of the week.
[Brandon] Dan? You had something about Fraggles?
[Dan] Our book of the week Is Fraggle Rock. No, our book of the week is Fragments, an excellent new novel by a brilliant mind of science fiction, named Dan Wells. This is the sequel to Partials. Partials was kind of me playing around with dystopia. Fragments is me playing around with epic fantasy tropes in a post-apocalyptic setting. So they get to go on some quests, and they get to discover some deep, dark conspiracies that terrify everyone. So it was a ton of fun to write it, and I hope you like to read it.
[Howard] And we also hope that you would like to have it read to you. Because you can go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a free trial membership, and help support the podcast by being nice to our kind advertiser and have a listen to Fragments by Dan Wells. We don't know who the narrator is yet because we're pretending that it's March, but it's actually still July.
[Brandon] [he-he-he] All right. So. Your story. What does the antagonist want? I'm going to...
[Howard] Well, I asked that question, but then Mary...
[Mary] The reason I brought that up... The reason I asked that is because that gives you a single body. It's just... Then it can be about...
[Howard] Oh, my gosh. Dog and pony show. Or actually dog apostrophe n pony show, so that it's dog in pony. Okay. That's a nice...
[Dan] I would love to have one of those scenes like in Men in Black where the horse's head folds open and there's a little Chihuahua sitting inside in a cockpit.
[Mary] Crested Chinese...
[Howard] [Wha-ha-ha-ha!] [Get rid of?] Taco Bell.
[Brandon] Now. If they want to... We want to keep it simple. If they want to discredit the protagonist for some reason, and get them... Maybe they think that these people being here is a sign of... That this business is being taken more seriously, and the antagonist has liked being able to run amok?
[Howard] Breya and Haban are in this position because their ambassadorship to the Fleetmind went poorly. Relations with... At this point in the Schlock Mercenary universe, relations between the UNS and the Fleetmind are at a fresh all-time low.
[Brandon] Is there some reason that are protagonist could be threatened... Could be threatening to the evil mastermind?
[Howard] Breya is connected and Haban is really, really smart.
[Dan] Well, we mean the dogs, don't we?
[Brandon] Yeah, why would...
[Howard] Why would Breya and Haban be a threat to...
[Mary] Well, it could be that they... It could be not so much that they are a threat, but that they want to unseat them so they can get someone in who is...
[Brandon] Right. Maybe they had their own candidate who had been being mediocre in just the perfect way, like had striven for complete mediocrity and was perfectly foolish, and this leads to great jokes, and then these two came along and out-buffooned the perfect person for the job and got it instead.
[Mary] Or that they are competent and didn't... They need someone who is not competent.
[Howard] Actually, the way I was thinking about it is that Lady Andreyasn, Breya's mom, who we've never seen but we know is the source of a lot of these connection. She has ensured that the two of them will have a job, instead of being put all the way out to pasture. So she pulled strings, and the evil pony lost his or her buffoon.
[Brandon] Or that evil pony was in charge and...
[Dan] It might be as simple as... You said at the beginning that Andreyasn and Haban, they kind of feel like caretakers, almost like zookeepers. It could be that the animals, the uplifted animals, feel the same thing in reverse. "We don't want to have a zookeeper. Don't put a human in charge of us. That's demeaning."
[Howard] Okay. But that's not... I don't have a problem with that. I think that would be awesome. If the antagonist wants something that's awesome and right, then we've turned the story inside out.
[Brandon] Yes, we have.
[Dan] Well, they're just going about it through shifty means.
[Mary] Well, but...
[Howard] I want something nefarious. I want something...
[Dan] Something super? Okay.
[Howard] Something potentially hurtful.
[Brandon] Well, I threw... Downlifting humans.
[Mary] They... Of course. No. No. They want to downlift the cats.
[Brandon] Are the cats uplifted?
[Howard] I haven't said no yet.
[Brandon] That may be the low hanging fruit there.
[Jordo] [Maybe it's someone else trying to get the gold underneath the ambassador's house?]
[Mary] That's true. It could be... I would've gotten away... And then you unmask...
[Dan] This pony is actually... A dog!
[Mary] I would've gotten away with it, too.
[Dan] Running away from the carnival.
[Howard] If it hadn't been for you kids. All right. No, sorry. You meddling kids.
[Dan] But he's actually...
[Howard] You meddling former ambassadorial politically connected...
[Dan] An intelligent dog.
[Dan] See, that's great because the dog and pony show is the carnival that old man Withers owns.
[Brandon] Oh, we're going so far off track.
[Howard] See, here's the thing. You keep trying to write this as if it's a comedy.
[Dan] I know. I'm sorry.
[Brandon] Wait a minute. We are using My Little Ponies.
[Howard] No, we are, we are. It's... One of the things that I try to stay away from is making fun of the story itself.
[Brandon] Right. The story is serious.
[Howard] I like a straight story... I like a straight story that has lots of humor in it. Being able to call it dog and pony show is funny enough. That's... That gets me 100% of the way there. Something nefarious. I like the idea of downlifting humans. I like the idea of downlifting anybody else in that counsel.
[Brandon] Downlifting... I think that could be... That's something you haven't approached before. Humans uplifted these. It could be that the dog wants to downlift all of his own species. "We were never meant to be this. We should be able to evolve to intelligence on our own, and those humans have ruined this." Of course, all the other dogs would disagree with this. But there could be... That could be pretty nefarious.
[Howard] Yeah. David Brin explored the politics of uplift in the Uplift War where the humans had one set of goals for the chimpanzees, and when the... I don't remember which race it was, but when they took over the planet, they suddenly had a different set of goals for the chimpanzees. There's infighting among the chimps about whose brain is really superior now, I think more like the aliens want me to. I bring that up because I don't want to retell a story that somebody else has already done better with the same words.
[Mary] Right. What if they... It's not that they want to downlift people, but they want to use this new My Little Pony technology to actually implant dog brains and take over the Senate?
[Brandon] Okay. Or we could go back to the...
[Mary] Everybody gets dog brains. Then you can actually use your AI. Maybe they're planning on putting a dog brain in Haban.
[Brandon] You could go the other direction, and just do the extra uplift. We found hyper intelligent people such as the AIs. We want to be in charge instead of the humans. If we can go to the next level up, if we can up up lift, then we will be in complete charge. Let's make ourselves extra intelligent.
[Dan] Especially if the method of up up lifting is cool magical tattoos on your hip. That would be awesome.
[Brandon] Yeah, that would be awesome.
[Howard] Okay. We're running out of time. Let me say this. I like the ideas. I'm going to have to put a bunch of these in the stewpot. One of the things that this story needs to foreshadow... I'm not saying that it's going to be a cliffhanger, but one of the things it needs to be able to foreshadow is the potential for a great big UNS-wide civil war. Which I have not yet gotten around to writing or even plotting, I just know that it needs to happen, and I know what some of the pieces are.
[Mary] Next time lead with that.
[Brandon] This totally can play into this.
[Mary] Next time lead with that.
[Dan] That's really good.
[Howard] You reminded me of it.
[Howard] All right.
[Brandon] Writing prompt?
[Howard] Well, I don't want to give a prompt that will have people trying to write my story.
[Brandon] Okay. How about the downlifting thing then? An uplifted animal tries to get his entire species downlifted again.
[Brandon] You're not going to use that, right?
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.