Writing Excuses 8.9: Brainstorming with Howard

In this episode Howard pitches three story ideas to the group, and they pick one to brainstorm. The selection process is itself educational (which is good, because it runs for a third of the ‘cast…)

The story selected is near-future science-fiction with extra-dimensional, magical elements. As the brainstorming continues, we grab some fun secret-history elements, and successfully deepen the conflict. We also learn that there are two stories here, and Howard has to choose which one of them to write.

And For Your Disappointment: As of this time the story laid out in this ‘cast remains unwritten, so you can’t read it.

But to Make Up For It: Howard got distracted and wrote a horror piece instead! Here is a sample! (Note: this wasn’t one of the pitches, but it DOES demonstrate that Howard really, really wanted to get out of his comfort zone.)


Pick a major event in history, and then write a secret history in which Death returns to take over.

Feedback, by Robison Wells, narrated by Michael Goldstrom

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.9: Brainstorming with Howard”

  1. I’m not entirely sure if you got to this but maybe:
    They tweak the drug -> EVERYBODY on the planet takes it -> ‘death(eater)s’ start their feast -> they die before we die (there were fewer of them)

    Just a thought.

    Great ‘cast!

  2. What if a member of the secret society met with the doctor instead to give him his choice? This would allow for the conflict to exist between humans and gives opportunity to build up the world of the death demons. I’m curious where these demons exist and how they were created. The society could have deified the death demons for allowing them to be immortal, but some of the members have secretly craved death after being alive for such a long time. The members that crave for death will reach out to the doctor because they think he can create a drug that will allow them to die. Through the journey the doctor figures out that immortality is not something that should happen and is better off not created to be handed out to the masses for many reasons, but also figures out that he can create a drug that will change the way that people die so that their death will turn into a poison for the death demons, killing them when they feed. What if there are only a half dozen or so demons and when the immortals take of the drug and die, the demons feed on them and in turn die. Something along those lines could be an interesting if filled with a bunch of science and folklore.

  3. That was a pretty cool brainstorming session. Howard, I really like that you’re going for a positive, humans-win ending. :)

    Some side thoughts (and yes, I know that you – Howard – may already have the answers to these):

    Will people continue to have babies? In which case, is over-population something that would be a concern for anyone in the story?

    What kind of immortality is it? Is it the kind where people are perfectly healthy and therefore never degenerate into old age or die of disease and illness? Or is it the kind of immortality where no matter what happens, the immortal people always come back to life eventually? And what happens to ill/diseased/lame people? Will diabetics always have diabetes? Will the person missing a leg still be missing their leg? Also, would people be able to change and/or improve, such as a person working out to become more fit?

    If everyone is immortal, what happens to the believers of Heaven? Do religious people never get their final reward? Would organized religion be against this technology because it stops you from going to Heaven, achievement Nirvana, etc? Conversely, does that mean that agnostic and atheists would want the technology more than religious people? And (as much as I detest the idea of lumping non-believers with “bad” people), would people who believe in a god, but fear that they will be punished after death be more “for” the technology?

    Which leads to the question – will immortality be an involuntary option (such as the proposed wave of energy)? If it’s involuntary, then what happens to people who do not have such a great life? For instance, would people on the verge of starving to death not die, but live on still hungry?

    I see others posting more brainstormed ideas. I’m afraid I don’t have any story suggestions for you. However, I suspect that all of the possibilities you discussed in the podcast will end up being red herrings and the final version will be something unexpected and totally awesome! :D

  4. Hey long time fan here,

    What resonates most importantly with me would be the idea that in order to defeat death, we have to give up our immortality. Victory should have a cost to be meaningful and this cost would be ironically clever.

    Also, death is more menacing if its a single eldritch horror that manifests only faintly in our world as what we perceive as death. I love to idea of having a battle of wits with death, and it wouldn’t work as well it its just “average joe death-demon”. The one you talk to needs to be important, and a single powerful Death is more meaningful to the human experience.

    I don’t know where the secret history would fit into my version of the story but perhaps death could of sent the plague to exert pressure on an ancient alchemist who he had the same situation with.

    Love the discussions, keep up the good work!

  5. Why not turn the first suggestion around. Instead of a masochist getting off on pain by getting to close to the person he has been given the chip to stay away from, you can have the person who asked for the restraining order(s) be a sadist. That person can then try to “accidentally” get close to the person with the chip just to see that person’s pain.

  6. I like the idea of death’s ilk feeding on the emotion the person feels when they die and if society was drugged and peaceful it would not provide any nutrition for them. A malnourished ET race that wastes away because their prey self-medicates taking away their only sustenance. That’s good stuff. It has real life parallels too. It’s like when they figured out that the state of being when an animal is slaughtered flavors the meat. They shock cows or otherwise stun them to keep the beef from being ruined with fear. I think it was in the book Born to Run where they talk about how if you chase an animal until it collapses from exhaustion that the meat is robust and flavorful.

    If you go the drugging route it has prequel fan-fic flair to Serenity. Most of society peacefully lays down to die while a small percentage becomes bloodthirsty cannibalistic reavers. So death loses and so does mankind. A lose lose scenario.

  7. Maybe you could work in the second law of thermodynamics in the method of beating/starving “the death people”. The passage of souls follow the law while the grabbing (black death style) goes against that law.

    I don’t know, just throwing some thoughts out there.

  8. Another great episode guys. It’s always great when we get to hear you create with abandon ;P

    I’ve transcribed the episode here, with links back to the site: http://www.second-look.info/Transcripts/Writing%20Excuses/S08E09.html

    With all the talk of souls and mythological beings, what you guys think on the subject of beliefs, and how they interact with your writing. What would you do about a story or idea that is contrary to your religious or atheistic beliefs? For example, if you were a person who does not believe in evolution, would you allow yourself to write about how an alien species evolved, etc.?

    How far do you allow yourselves to take such ideas? Or is it up to each individual writer to decide for themselves?

  9. I had a thought while you guys were talking about the different possibilities of the consequences to the soul when the reapers feed and I wanted to share it so much that it took a moment to realise that you wouldn’t be able to hear me, and the episode was recorded forever ago. Impressive run-on there. Heh.

    Anyway, the thought was that the process of naturally collecting the energy released of death is passive and doesn’t effect the soul in any way (that the reapers are aware of. Or they could be lying) but the act of forcibly extracting the soul damages, or even destroys it.

  10. You could write in the first idea as a subplot in the theoretical novel here—and have the stalker be, or become, a serial killer—whose involvement with death could also come into the plot in some way! :-)

    (Just saying.)

  11. How’s about the Black Death beginning following a war upon these extra-dimensional creatures waged in secret by Ukhaantu Khan?
    It would also allow for an awesome historical fantasy prequel. :D
    A sorcerer has discovered what is happening to humanity’s souls and so petitions the Khan for support and so he convenes a group of warriors, occultists and representatives of the various religions present in the Empire to stop the feeding.

  12. Should probably have mentioned that Ukhaantu Khan was the ruler of the Mongol Empire during the period of the Black Death.

  13. Fun episode. Love how the story evolved. I thought for sure y’all were going to pick the last pitch though.

  14. Howard,
    If you wanted to take this one step forward, you could say that whenever a human dies, their soul actually migrates to another dimension where it can exist in peace and blissful contentment. However, these interdimensional beings posing as “death” capture these migrating souls and store them in repositories, so their people can parasitically feed on them, which is agonizingly painful to the souls.
    Thus you raise the stakes from trying to save human lives from death, but the very souls of all mankind from an eternity of torment and agony.
    Heh, that’s a sci-fi approach to the afterlife :)

  15. The big thought I had from this is: what if you made Death a drug dealer?

    I mean, ok, with the story that you’re telling on this episode, it ends in genocide, one way or another. Either the aliens kill a bunch of us, we keep dying, or a bunch of aliens die. None of that quite screams “happy ending.”

    Except! What if they don’t need human death to live, per se, it just gives them an euphoric high? And “Death” has, through some means, managed to corner the market on ‘human life energy’ or whatever. Thus, much like human businessmen, when his supply is threatened he’ll do nearly anything to protect his bottom line. I’d start with “bluffing about how our species needs this energy to live and we’ll kill a big chunk of you if we have to,” like was said on the show.

  16. @Thomas Giles, I won’t speak for the WE team on writing contrary to their beliefs/non-beliefs, but for me, I see no conflict. We’re writing fiction. We write all kinds of stuff we “don’t believe in” like elves, unicorns, and people ingesting toxic levels of metals to do magic kung-fu fights high over industrial age cities against people with huge metal spikes for eyes.

    Separating one’s real world beliefs from what is clearly fiction shouldn’t be difficult. Yes one’s beliefs can and do shape the nature of the stories told, but they don’t have to confine them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write any stories involving “bad guys” or anyone ever making “wrong choices”.

    DISCLAIMER: I do not sanction nor condone any illegal activities that my characters may perform in the course of their story arcs.

  17. Howard, you twisted beauty, I love them all!

    You might consider combining the first with one of the others. Your first two have a similar idea of someone/something living off something that is detrimental to others. Your main character in your first story idea could be the antagonist in your third story.

    And with that, I’m off to vacuum my duvet. (What? Doesn’t everyone?)

  18. Interesting cast. I love the opening to the story Howard actually wrote – way more intriguing to me than the ones discussed in the brainstorm. Will have to download the e-book version and find out what happens with those space runes – awesome idea.

  19. Any chance we could read that one scene you wrote Howard? I loved this episode, definitely got my brain whirling!

  20. HOWARD:

    STOP EVERYTHING – and write all three as novels (trilogy somehow?)! I’m intrigued by all three ideas and can’t wait to read them as books.

    As for playing to your strengths… We ain’t in high school, baybah – no need to go for the easy “A.” Write from your depths (and you’ve got depths, kid).

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