Key points: Got an idea? Maybe a little world-building? Think about who is most at jeopardy. Just toss out people who will be involved. Where does it break down? Think of possible characters. What are the implications? How can it get worse? How can we resolve this? What are the possible endings? What do your characters want? How can I make the setting, characters, and plot original, distinctive, interesting?
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Brainstorming with Brandon Again, Psychic Birds.
[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 ready to try this again.
[Brandon] Okay. So the last time, I think it's actually instrumental... We'll probably still run that episode. We talked about maybe not running it, where we brainstormed with me. The story just didn't grab me. This is going to happen. I think it's actually very useful for us to have stories that just... Not every one is going to be a knockout-of-the-park winner, and I think it's vital that you hear that.
[Mary] That's actually why I do my thumbnails, and then see which one grabs me.
[Brandon] Right. I have things like that, we all have scraps of stories, but... Just to give it another try. Maybe this one will fail too. Maybe we'll get something out of this one. I wanted to try brainstorming another story for me to try writing, using something of the writing prompt from the last week's episode. Psychic birds. The idea of a little bird that you keep on your shoulder that gives you a... Some sort of psychic magical or whatever bonus because of how it evolved is fascinating to me. The idea that I used was the one that keeps away the hunters... When it's on your shoulder, the hunters that sense for empathy or whatever or emotion or mind thought can't find you and so you're invisible to it. But then I kept thinking... Thought of all sorts of other birds, ones that give you an ESP, that let you see when your eyes are closed, a bird that does... Whatever... These different breeds of birds that... Were on a planet that people have landed, that have psychic bird things. Where can we go with that? We need a plot, is the problem.
[Mary] So, the way I approach things like this, is I always look at... First, I do a little bit of world building. But I try to figure out... So you've already got kind of how they're used, but who's going to be most at jeopardy from this? I kind of start just tossing out things, like so you're going to have bird trainers. You're going to have bird breeders, you're going to have the users, you're going to have the brokers. You're going to have a restaurant owner who has to deal with people coming in with birds that will poop on the floor. But...
[Mary] So I kind of start tossing those out.
[Brandon] Okay. So I'm interested in anything in there. An explorer who has a psychic bird?
[Mary] An explorer who has a psychic...
[Brandon] Just a member of society who has a psychic bird? I kind of like explorer, I kind of like the idea that this is a frontier sort of thing, or...
[Dan] Well, when you talked about a... Maybe human settlers who have landed on a planet and adopted these native things, first place my mind went was do they still work when you take them off planet and do they then become a galactic commodity that everyone wants?
[Brandon] Okay. That's cool.
[Mary] Or do they need a group collective in order to work?
[Brandon] Yeah! Yeah.
[Dan] They might have to stay on the planet.
[Howard] That was what I was actually thinking, is the discovery that we've got a frontier planet... For the better part of the last 15 years, we've had an explosion, a proliferation in the use of these birds. Part of our story is the discovery that well, how do the birds feel about this? There is a bird collective intelligence, I don't want to say hive mind, but maybe it's similar to that, that up until now has felt like cooperating with humans and helping humans is good because our numbers are increasing and you're helping us keep predators away by adding to our senses. But now something that you're doing is not good for us.
[Brandon] I want the birds to be animal intelligence.
[Mary] Animal intelligence?
[Brandon] I want them to be animal intelligence. I'm just going to throw it out there.
[Brandon] That's a very cool way to go. The animal intelligence thing... I really do like the idea of can they work off planet and maybe saying no, they can't right now, but there's a lot of interest in can we get these things to work or things like this...
[Mary] So you've got a trader then, who would be very interested in trying to get those to work.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's definitely a possibility there.
[Dan] Well, if you've got, like you said, the ESP bird or a mind reader bird, then whatever galactic government you have, everybody's going to want one of those.
[Mary] So we've got a couple of possible characters there. So the next question to ask is what are the implications of this?
[Brandon] Right. That's going to probably depend on the scope. I keep trying in my head to push this fantasy, even though we've talked science fiction about it the whole time. For some reason, I just keep trying to push it fantasy.
[Dan] Well, going back to fantasy, I love the idea that one person could have several birds, but only pick one at a time. So they would have like some kind of a dovecote or something where they keep 20 different birds and have to choose which one am I going to...
[Brandon] I like that a lot.
[Dan] Slot into this mission? So to speak.
[Howard] The other possibility, you can only have... For whatever reason, you can only have one bird at once, and yet we've got somebody who has managed two birds, and the second bird is psychically unlinked but will psychically link to somebody who is standing close to you and give you the ability through your bird to read minds. So we have somebody who has broken the rules and has become the worst sort of spy.
[Brandon] He's hacking your bird.
[Howard] He's hacking... Yeah, he's not just hacking your bird and you, and he's got... The second bird is a little pocket bird. It's a baby of the bird on his shoulder, which is why he's able to do this.
[Brandon] Let's push this. Let's say more fantasy. I'm liking that a lot. What if it's a new world sort of thing? We've discovered these birds. We could still keep the whole... We can't get them shipped, they die if they leave the continent for some reason. So there's that. So we can have that whole interplay. We've got the... We could have the thing be... This guy's an explorer, trying to figure out where this new bird came from that the guy was able to make work with the other birds or something like that.
[Dan] It could be just that there is a new breed of bird. If they're explorers, there could be another tribe or a city or something off in wherever, where they have bread this new kind of bird that none of the other colonists are aware of yet.
[Brandon] Okay. What's our ending?
[Mary] See, I think you're...
[Brandon] We don't have enough of a story for an ending, do we? Or...
[Mary] See, I think you're... Yeah, personally, I think you're jumping way, way...
[Brandon] See, I build my books around endings. You'll hear this when we did the things with you and with Dan. I was always jumping to what's the ending? Where are we ending? How's it going? I couldn't really see the story until I saw how it ends.
[Mary] Right. One of the things that I was asking when I was saying "What are the implications of this?" is that that allows you then to ask "How can it get worse?", which I think then leads to the "How can we resolve this?" What are the possible endings? One of the other things that you have... For me, looking at possible endings are what do your characters want? So for me, I feel like if it were me doing this, I wouldn't have enough groundwork laid before I could start jumping to endings. Like, I mean, I could have... The ending... The bird dies ending. The bird lays a double yoked egg, and for the first time, people can have two birds at the same time. The ending is that the avian flu comes, and you can no longer carry the bird because it's going to kill everybody. It's like... There's so many endings.
[Howard] You mentioned avian flu. If our protag... She's a doctor, and she's got a bird, and the bird helps her be a better doctor through recognizing the pain of the people around her. Okay? She can more accurately gauge where it hurts, and is a fantastic doctor as a result. We have a plague, a sickness that is sweeping through the city, and she is trying to figure out why people are getting sick, what the problem is. We ascertain... Our ending is the discovery that there is a parasite living in the bird poop, and we have to kill all of our birds.
[Brandon] Oh! Wait, no. That just sparked me on something else. What if what's giving them the psychic power is not the birds, but the parasites?
[Brandon] So the twist is we're using the birds like a parasite, we're symbiotic with the birds, but this has already happened. The birds figured it out...
[Brandon] And like it's the worms that the birds go eat. The story could be these birds, when we first catch them in the wild, it's great. We get all these powers. But then the ones we raise...
[Mary] Don't have it.
[Howard] The ones we raise don't work.
[Brandon] Don't have the power. The explorers, they all think, "Oh, it's got to be something about the bird society" and he's out trying to find this...
[Howard] There you go.
[Brandon] Your ending is, it's the worms, and if we just give ourselves the worms, we could actually...
[Mary] We don't need those birds.
[Brandon] We don't need these birds. But then he's like, "Do I tell people?" Because the birds are cute and awesome. That's a cool ending, I think, right there because it lays the theme on top of itself with the symbiotic sort of thing. Then you play that up in the theme. We've created this symbiotic relationship that people love their birds, but it's really the worms the birds have. All right. We need to stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] I'm going to go with an old favorite, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Partly because she is just the queen of taking an interesting idea and running with it, and taking it places that you really don't expect it to go. I really probably don't need to tell you about this book. Most of you have read it. If you have not, this is such a seminal work of fantasy that you really need to go out and read it just... The whole young boy goes to wizarding school? She was there way, way before Harry Potter.
[Howard] Instead of going out there and reading it, you can go out there and have someone read it to you. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30 day free trial membership. Pick up A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin for free, and then you can get another book for 30% off, and anything by Ursula K. Le Guin would be a good choice.
[Brandon] All right. So let's explore this more now. We do have, in my mind, a rudimentary plot. This is what's going to happen, this is our ending. Where that ending goes, I still don't know, and that's fine. Whether it is he discovers this or she discovers this and doesn't want to tell people or... I would want to work into it that it is a real moral quandary. But maybe we should talk about who the character is. What suggestions do we have? I like the explorer aspect. The question I end up with is I don't know if I want a solitary person out there talking to the bird, but maybe I do.
[Mary] Well, the... If you... The trapper that goes out by himself is a... That's a standard in pretty much every culture, but there is usually some... Instead of just having him out by himself all the time, there's the outpost that he returns to.
[Brandon] Okay. So there's that.
[Mary] The trading post.
[Brandon] The outpost. That's good.
[Howard] There's also a dynamic to consider. Since you only have one bird, if you give him a human companion who has a bird that does something completely different, you get to explore the differences between the ways they interact with their psychic creatures.
[Brandon] Or if he meets a trapper from a rival company, and they're like, "Okay, let's work on this together, because it's for the good of the birds" or whatever. At this point, with a story like this, what I would be doing, since we're following the process. I'm now kind of excited about the story, I'm like, "Oo..." I now am looking for extra coolness. Right? I want... I would be saying, "Okay, let's look at my setting. How can I make the setting interesting and cool? What can be distinctive about it?" If I'm going to have a setting, I don't want it to just be something generic. Even in a short story, I wanted to be something you read and say, "Wow. That's a different take on this setting." I'll want to be trying to do that with characters also. The plot feels original to me. So where could we set this? What is this planet like? What could be interesting about it?
[Dan] Well, lots of cool and interesting birds suggests to me jungle, at least in part.
[Brandon] I like that idea.
[Dan] Jungle or Pacific islands. Which could be really fun, if this is almost an archipelago kind of situation.
[Brandon] Oh, that could be cool. Oh, archipelago is cool.
[Howard] Lots of little boating.
[Mary] Actually, this raises also the question if the... If we've got the archipelago and the worms are something that can, in fact, infect people and give them the same ability, then they would be able to do that to other creatures. So perhaps this archipelago is filled with poisonous creatures.
[Brandon] Right. Well, it comes back to the original concept of the bird keeps the predators from finding me. That's why we started using the birds is we started to colonize this planet, we just got eaten... Or we sailed across whatever it is that it's going to be. I would probably shoot even for an age of industry in this. We started colonizing this continent and we kept getting eaten by these big monster things, but they never ate the birds. We figured out if we tamed the birds, the monster things couldn't find us.
[Dan] Or you could take that symbiotic idea and say the local chimpanzees always kept pet birds, which we thought was really weird, until we figured out what was going on.
[Brandon] Yeah! Chimps with pet birds is awesome. So archipelago, I love the archipelago idea. Could we... Could I do bird-fish hybrid? Can something... Could they swim and fly? Or is that...
[Mary] Well, there was that whole BBC documentary about the flying penguins... On April Fools' Day.
[Howard] Hilarious. That was hilarious.
[Mary] I don't see any reason you can't have... I mean, there's plenty of birds that are divers.
[Mary] That are also flying birds.
[Brandon] But I'm talking like bird of paradise that is like an amphibian. This is a fantasy or science fiction world. Could we repurpose... Could we do that, or is that too weird?
[Dan] No, you could do that. I... Why do you want to do that? What would you gain, other than just hey, cool thing?
[Dan] Which is totally nice.
[Brandon] I'm looking for neat.
[Dan] Which is totally a good reason to do it.
[Mary] If I were going to do that, I would probably look at doing a bird-chameleon hybrid, because the psychic ability is all about camouflaging themselves.
[Brandon] Okay. Bird-chameleon, so the feathers change colors?
[Howard] If you want a bird...
[Brandon] That gets into this is also cute, which is also good when you're doing an animal story.
[Howard] The challenge with birds as also fish is that fish are effective as fish because of neutral buoyancy, and if you're neutrally buoyant in the water, you fly like a brick. But ducks with ballast bags? There's a way to do this.
[Brandon] Okay. Now let's abandon this. Give me other coolness for this story.
[Dan] Other cool things? What about other symbiotic pairings of animals? If this... If the powers come from a worm that is here on these islands, maybe it's not just the birds. Maybe one species of deer always has psychic snakes living in their antlers or something. Different pairings.
[Mary] You know what? Actually, there is a good reason to do the birds with fish, is because if the worms come from seafood. So you've got psychic fish, which are clearly not going to be useful as pets.
[Howard] Well, they don't have to be fish-birds, but aquatic birds that eat a lot of seafood [inaudible].
[Dan] The problem there is that then this is... If these get into the ocean, I think it's easier to spread them around. They would essentially be all over the world.
[Brandon] That's a good point.
[Dan] If it's land-based, they're stuck on this series of islands.
[Brandon] Yeah, they're stuck on the archipelago, and the question is why haven't the humans figured out about the worms yet. The answer could be the archipelago is really, really dangerous. So we go in, we capture a bunch of birds, we bring them back. They work, but the children don't. I'm liking that. Cool monsters also is great. Explorer, cool monsters, and ooo...
[Mary] Oh, if it's not just an archipelago, but it's volcanic. So then you have hot mud baths, you have swampy things, and you got earthquakes. That can be one of the things the birds warn you of.
[Howard] Birds warn you of earthquakes, birds warn you of volcanoes, and you take the bird back to the mainland, and the birds manage to predict the super caldera volcano in time to save civilization. Sorry, the book just got bigger.
[Dan] If this is an island empire here, a bunch of islands that are so dangerous, full of earthquakes and volcanoes and predators, one of your cool elements could be that the civilization that has grown up around here is all water-based. Like junk cities around Hong Kong. So they all live on boats, and the cities can kind of move around with the weather. It's only the trappers that can venture into the islands looking for more birds.
[Brandon] Okay. Cool. We've got a really cool story here. I'm very pleased with this. I think we're out of time. But a writing prompt? Writing prompt, writing prompt. Okay. I'm going to not use fish-birds. I'm going to make you use fish-birds. I want you to come up with an animal that both swims and flies, like an amphibian. Half of its life is underwater, half of its life... Like an insect in our world. But for some new reason that they fly and swim. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.