Writing Excuses 7.51: Brainstorming with Mary

We try. We really do. But sometimes, in our efforts to make sure we’ve got a large enough queue of episodes to keep you edutained and entercated, we get things out of order. Badly.

Our last two episodes (49 and 50) made reference to this one, which was recorded before they were, and many of you were confused. We were even confused! But enough about the behind-the-scenes recording process. On with the episode!

Mary pitches us three story sketches, and we pick one to brainstorm. This, by the way, is also how Mary works with her agent. After the pitches, we select the one that doesn’t have much of a story yet.

And then it’s a brainstorming session. If you’ve ever wondered where we (or anybody else) gets their ideas, and more importantly, how they refine them, this is a must-listen.


In a setting in which magnetic fields are dramatically different between locations, give us a story about traveling between those locations.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin, narrated by Casaundra Freeman

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.51: Brainstorming with Mary”

  1. Yesss!!! Surprise Wednesday episode! That makes me so happy.

    Love the idea of the tidally locked world and discovering the moon. I could see how you could get lost in world building on that one.

    And the wizards idea! It would make a great short story or novel, BUT it would make an AWESOME series or feature film. Do it!

    And the werewolf story. When Mary said that, “it was his time of the month” I almost lost it. Freaking hilarious.

    Thank you Writing Excuses for the Wednesday episode. You made my morning a little better.

  2. Thanks! Although it may take me an extra day or so to get the transcript up — I haven’t even finished the last one yet. Still, double podcasts for the holidays! What a deal. Two for the price of one ;-)

  3. Thanks, enjoyed it!

    May I submit how I would tell this story?

    Because I think there was a common thread, in a worldbuilding AND story sense, that could’ve been exploited. When I think of a sailor or explorer, I think of navigation – by the stars. Then, of course, with the world’s conceit being a tidally-locked moon, this just speaks again and again of the cosmos. And if we’re talking about cultural differences like religion, I say go with astrology.

    I would have the people on the new land be, if not quite savages, then technologically behind the sailor. Based on the placement of the moon, stars, etc., they await at that time the arrival of sort of a Prometheus figure, to bring the people great “fire” and advancement.

    Now the sailor himself… he’s escaping ruin, apocalypse. Plague, specifically. He set sail with a full ship, but the plague followed them and they have all perished, tossed overboard to protect the dwindling amount of others. He’s alone – apparently immune. He gets to the land by following the brightest star he sees in the sky because, well… where else has he got to go? The story opens, of course, when he sees the moon.

    Structurally, I would tell this story as a series of episodic journal entries – a captain’s journal, if you will. Use prose that’s accessible, but more formal and similar to Old English. One, I love the aesthetics. Two, it allows you to cover a lot of time in a short story.

    The gist of the story is – he arrives, the people welcome him, and over time he brings them technology, and city, and prosperity… but he also brings plague. He’s immune, but he’s a carrier. The people’s Promethus is the worst thing that could have happened to them, and they die in droves… leaving quiet, empty cities.

    The story ends in the final journal entry, the lonely captain packing up what he can back onto the ship, and sailing off…

  4. This was really cool. I’ve been liking the concept of the tidally locked moon in all the discussions. The big “that’s the ticket” moment for me was when the possibility came up of the two different civilizations each being the more advanced in some areas instead of one being more advanced in all. That’s a concept that hasn’t been played with enough in fantasy or science fiction, and for me it gave the path to the solution that extra bit of believability.

    I know this was probably recorded a while back, so the story may actually be written now. However, there was one important world building detail that it sounded like you were all overlooking. The light from the moon is going to be reflected sunlight. That means that the moon will still have phases. Some of the discussion made it sound like you all were picturing the moon as always being full.

    At noon, there will be a new moon. It will wax during the afternoon to a half moon at sunset and then continue waxing to a full moon at midnight. Then the moon will start to wane, being a half moon again at dawn and returning to new at the next noon. This means that the night time illumination will not be constant. If you are envisioning the night illumination giving extra work time, the best time will be the hours around midnight, suggesting that people might develop a split sleep cycle.

    If you go with the gas giant, the details get more interesting. If the “moon” takes up a sizeable fraction of the sky, the sun will likely be behind it for a lot of the day. The phases will look different because the geometry of the situation means that you’re seeing less than half of the moon’s surface area, so a lot of the time the terminator won’t be visible. You’ll have hours of new moon during the daytime, hours of full moon at night, and a greatly compressed period of transition between the two. All this adds up to “daytime” being the darkest time, since you are getting neither direct nor reflected sunlight when the sun is behind the moon. You might get a halo of light scattered by the atmosphere of your gas giant, but I don’t know that it would provide much illumination. Also, daily total solar eclipses that affect the entire planet and last hours are probably going to have interesting affects on the weather, but that’s really getting beyond my area of knowledge.

    Anyway, awesome series of podcasts, and I wasn’t bothered much that they were out of order.

  5. Mary should check out Far-Seer by Robert J. Sawyer.

    It takes place on a tidally locked habitable moon orbitting a gas giant. The only continent is on the side facing away from the gas giant. Part of the plot involves a pilgrimage around the world by ship to witness the Face of God hanging in the sky.

    BTW, the inhabitants are sentient dinosaurs (so cool)!

  6. Hey guys, thanks a lot. I love all the podcasts.
    This site is fantastic and very helpful. I live in Germany and can’t thank you enough. Over here we still hold to the belief of German romanticism that becoming an author just requires natural genius. The idea that you could teach the craft in institutions of higher learning is still frowned upon. I think there are only two university degrees for fiction writing in all of Germany. So most German writers have to to teach themselves or pay for private courses of doubtful quality.
    So for me, this site is a gold mine. The internet wins again!

    Great job, and please keep those podcasts coming!

  7. I so want to hear the brainstorming session for the wizard reality show idea. That sounds like it would be an awesome story.
    The werewolf one sounds pretty cool too. Not sure I’d want to come across a werewolf at that ‘time of the month’ :)
    Keep up the great work, guys. Really enjoy listening!

  8. I don’t mean to come off as pedantic here, but I have to correct your terminology a bit.

    What you described in the brainstorm is NOT a tidally locked world.

    Tidally Locked means that the orbital period of the orbiting body is the same as its period of rotation about its own axis, meaning one side of the orbiting body will alway face toward the thing it is orbiting. Our moon is tidally locked.

    What you described, where the moon is only ever visible on one side of the planet, is a condition where the moon orbits in a geosynchronous position. This means its orbital radius is such that its period of revolution is the same as the period of rotation of the body it is orbiting. Thus it will always remain in the same location relative to the orbited boy’s surface.

    A geosynchronous orbit is possible naturally, but very unlikely because of how precise the orbit must be. But the rule of large numbers dictates that it WILL happen somewhere. Many times.

    If a body is orbitally locked, one side will always exist in daylight and the other always in darkness. This has a number of interesting effects. The sun side will be very hot, the dark side very cold. Maybe frozen completely.. This temperature gradient will cause strong winds that flow from the light side to the dark. The constant wind will heat up the dark side, how much probably depends on the body’s proximity its star and how much heat is trapped in the atmosphere on the light side. There are other probable effects. Astronomy Cast (www.astronomycast.com) discussed orbitally locked worlds a couple years ago after the discovery of Gliese 581g. That episode is available in their archives.

    Your proposed story sounds interesting. But I have to say the botched scientific premise would stop me from reading it without ever cracking the cover. But then, I am a stickler for these sorts of things.

    1. Actually, you DO mean to come off as pedantic. Your post is the very epitome of pedanticism. What you’re asking is for us not to take offense at this. So the phrase you want to lead with might look like “please forgive my pedantry, but you’ve kicked over my hobby-horse.”

      I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am less likely to pay attention to pedants (even well-meaning ones) who misuse words in their opening arguments. Work on that! Also, consider brevity, and maybe links so that you can be helpful, and provide us with good examples of the terminology we want.

      Still, good catch.

  9. @Stephen: And THIS is why it would have been good for there to be links in the pedanticism. BETTER CATCH.

    @Michael: Apology accepted. You didn’t cause offense, but it would appear that you were wrong. Please, please, PLEASE do more research before weighing in like this.

  10. A good example of the difference between what’s fun for the writer and what’s interesting for the reader. As a writer, I would have loved to explore the “I’m a Wizard, Get Me Out of Here!” show but as a reader, browsing books in a shop, it might be a difficult concept to express in a back-cover blurb.

  11. A wonderful podcast. I love listening to you guys brainstorm ideas.

    My current book takes place in a setting where the sun is too hot and forced the inhabitants to evolve nocturnally. Every time Brandon suggested the tyranny of the sun throughout this podcast I had a complete “Oh Crap!” moment.

    At least on the plus side that podcast is now applicable. :P

  12. On terminology, planets and moons can be “tidally locked” either to their star, or to one of their moons, or to their planet if a moon. It means the lockED body always present the same side to the lockING body. Earth’s moon is lockED to Earth. Eventually Earth will become lockED to the Moon, and the Moon will still be lockED to the Earth, while also becoming a lockER.

    If one side of a planet is always illuminated by its star, that planet is locked to its star. I learned something in looking this up, since Mercury is NOT tidally locked to the Sun, although it was until recently thought to be so.

    Mary’s scenario is where the planet is tidally locked to its moon. The moon may or may not be itself locked.

  13. Andrew: “Bob Smith is a contestant on ‘I’m a wizard, get me out of here!’. But how far will he go to win the grand prize?”

  14. (pardon the mad rambling – I haven’t had my coffee yet)

    I think the wizard idea would be really fun to read about – might be interesting as a group work, where each person in the pod cast writes the views for the different wizards still in the game.

    Also – the idea that kept popping into my head regarding the explorer sailing around to the other side of their world is – disease – consider in our world people that are cut off from the larger groups – what happens when we bring in or are exposed to their germs. Something that is fine for us, wipes them all out. Which brought up the idea of him/her showing up – getting some disease but needing to somehow warn his/her people about the coming threat but at the same time he/she could be carrying their cultures demise back. Or the reverse – S/he has or is immune to something common on their side but deadly to the folks on the other side of the world. Getting back, warning, creating panic of this threat that never did show up and all the drama that comes with that.

    Actually, wasn’t there some black and white movie about this group of men that went to the moon and found some bug like creatures there? One stays behind when they return but he had a cold. Later when the government makes it to the moon they find the ruins left of the culture. Can’t remember the movie’s name!

    Lots and lots of ways and many many different stories to tell in that same line of thought -hope to read what Mary comes up with someday soon!!

  15. This was a lot of fun to listen to. It was entertaining and informative to see your minds at work. Now I want to read the story! The wizard one sounds interesting too.

  16. Howard’s divergent species idea and the religious aspects remind me a bit of Ursula LeGuin. I’ll be interested to read the final book if/when it gets fully developed.

    I love the idea of the wizard reality show. My brain immediately went to the Dresden Files universe, except that magic and technology (cameras, etc.) are highly incompatible there. :)

  17. What would also be fun, if they are somewhat divergent is that the darksiders may have better night vision, which would be useless in most situations on the moonside, but it could be useful in a minor scene.

    Or even, it could be useful in a major scene if we ever got to see the Marco Polo character in a naval engagement against an enemy warship just inside of the darkside.

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