Writing Excuses 8.16: Brainstorming with Brandon Again

We’re going to try brainstorming with Brandon again, because that last story didn’t grab him. There’s a lesson there, but let’s move on…

Our story seed is “psychic birds.” Brandon asks us to start with plotting, but we have to do a little world-building first, locking down some of the bird abilities, and their scope. Then we wrestle with conflict, and the need for a good ending.


Come up with an animal that both swims and flies. But not a duck.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, narrated by Rob Inglis

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.16: Brainstorming with Brandon Again”

  1. This podcast made me think of how birds can be used to track or place animals in real life.

    In South Asia there are certain types of thrushes and babblers that will react differently to certain kinds of predators. Thrushes and fantails will chatter, some fantails actually even baiting large animals that come too close to their nests. Scimitar-Babblers in particular will cry out and fly opposite the direction of a tiger or leopard while the thrushes will chatter in different manners depending on which of the great cats it is, or even if it may be some wild dogs.

    If you’re experienced in the sounds of the jungle you can then refine that knowledge with the noises that the deer and monkeys make to discern what direction a large cat is moving and how to avoid/intercept it. Such tactics were used by man-eater hunters back in the day and are still used by conservationists and park rangers.

    Not quite psychic birds but something that certainly could have applicability to developing the idea. There is a lot animals can tell you about approaching predators without a person ever having to see signs of them.

  2. :D Oh cool I made up the idea of fishbirds a long time ago and I drew lots of pictures and made up a whole life cycle for them and it was really awesome. Go fishbirds!

  3. I absolutely love listening to your ‘brainstorming’ episodes. I love that “Ooooooh!” moment like Brandon had when the idea of the worm parasites came up.

  4. The parasites could be geothermal in some way and the psychic birds could mysteriously fly into volcanoes once a year because that’s where the parasites breed. Psychic suicidal parrots.

  5. Have any of the hosts read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes? It was the first thing I thought of when I heard the story idea.

    She had all sorts of magical familiars. It’s fascinating.

  6. I hate to throw this out there, but the story sounds way too forced. Like you seem to have all these good little mini-ideas and when you start thinking deeper into one of them you realize there isn’t a story.

    I actually thought there was something to the AI story but didn’t think you tried to go in-depth enough.

  7. I really liked this insight into how Brandon tries to build stories backwards. I would love to see, somewhere, how he decides to build the rest of this story, especially how he takes the ideas that you came up with and turns them into an outline with characters and a full plot.

    One idea that sparked in my head: If you’re working with an archipelago setting, then it would be cool for each of the islands to have a different set of worms, so they birds from each island had different abilities. Certain birds would be more commodious than the others. At the beginning, they could think that there are actually different species of birds, but part of the big discovery could be that the abilities depend on the island, and nothing else. Maybe the discovery that you actually can give a bird two abilities if he’s taken to more than one island at a young age?

  8. By the way, Brandon did write this story. I think that he will talk about it at the writing retreat.

  9. Hopefully, I’m the only one who immediately thought of the 1992 movie, Medicine Man, when they heard the “big reveal” for this bird story? For those not in the know, in that movie, researchers have found a flower in the rainforest than can cure cancer. But then the flower stops working, so they try to figure out why. The “reveal” there is that the flowers weren’t the cure, but rather the ants that used the flowers for food were.

    That said, I’ve never been disappointed in anything I’ve read of Sanderson’s, so I can’t imagine that I will be now.

  10. With the symbiotic relationship, I had a question. If you switch birds, you get different powers. Yet you can only have one bird at a time (then comes the story of the guy with the two birds). If the powers are from the worms, if you have more than one worm(from using more than one bird), why only one power?

    But otherwise, this sounds like an amazing story.

  11. The birds aren’t just cute and awesome, the Protag also is making money on the birds, and is doing so well he can help out his family. Including his sick daughter.

  12. If the parasites affect the birds and other fauna of the archipelago, I hope Brandon figures out a reason why the parasites aren’t infecting people (e.g., worms only infect avian-life and haven’t jumped species).

  13. This was a great podcast. I’ve often heard Brandon talk about coming up with an ending first and writing to that ending. What surprised me was what Brandon defines as an “ending”, and frankly it is different than what I was thinking about as “ending”. He isn’t talking about the last chapter of the book, he is talking about he ending solution to the main problem of your story. Realizing this has been a breakthrough for me with the story I’m currently writing!

    After listening to this podcast, I sat down and wrote down: IDEA, PROBLEM, SOLUTION (ending). For Brandon’s story, I would say that the IDEA is Birds that give human’s psychic powers. PROBLEM: MC (or others) wants to make a commodity of these birds, export them off world, etc., but the second generation breeding doesn’t give the same powers. SOLUTION: MC goes out to solve problem. Discovers solution that these powers come from parasitic worms, not the birds themselves.
    What is mind-blowing to me is that understanding the ending, or SOLUTION to the problem, opened up great possibilities for the denouement: humans can give themselves worms, or humans can breed the worms and sell them, or humans can transfer worms to other species and people can pick there own animal (if worm only works on animals and not humans), etc. This last part is what I’ve always thought about as the ending, and I always get STUCK! But if my ending is really the solution to my main problem, then the ending comes along naturally as the story is fleshed out.

    I also love the that COOL STUFF was also considered an important part of brainstorming.

    This episode was fantastic. Thank you for changing my life a bit. More Brainstorming with Brandon please!!

  14. I’ve only started listening to you guys in the past month. I started from both season 1 episode 1 and have been listening to current episodes.
    In the first season you mentioned in your sic-fi episode that good short sic-fi needs to have a good knowledge on current science. Keeping that in mind, I was wondering if you could do something like a “Brainstorming New Science” where you use the Higgs Boson, stem cell, etc. as a jumping off point to create educated short sic-fi fiction?

  15. I know this was probably recorded a long while ago, and evidently Brandon already wrote the story, but I was listening to the podcast while walking the dog, so my brain was storming in parallel. Some potential ideas:

    -Is the variation in powers due to the species of bird or the species of worm?
    -If someone steals your bird and are still nearby do they gain the power or does it “bond” with a particular person?
    -If there are competing bird trappers on the islands, I imagine they go around with blow-guns or other bird-killing weapons. I don’t have to kill you, just your bird. The monsters will do the rest.
    -Are there any mental/psychic repercussions for long-term exposure to the psychic birds?
    -One big difference between using a psychic bird and ingesting the worm yourself would be that nobody can tell you have psychic abilities. If you have a bird on your shoulder everyone can tell you are some psychic weirdo and be forewarned, but ingesting a worm is psychic weirdo in stealth mode.
    -Once people start ingesting the worms, are there new/additional side effects? Do certain worms release toxins or other psychedelic chemicals that don’t affect birds but do affect humans?
    -Can a worm survive in a human as long as it can in a bird or does it only last a few hours/days and then die off? If the worm dies off, do the side-effects also go away or are they more permanent?
    -Perhaps the bird trapper realizes that he no longer has to travel to the islands and trap birds, just bring back the worms and find a way to farm them. Then perhaps an evil organization starts doing animal/human testing on the various species of worms, then black market trading of psychic worms, etc, and it becomes a completely different set of stories.

    Obviously these questions are all moot points since the book has been written, but the ideas needed to get out of my head and now they can just live out here on the internets.

  16. Great episode.

    I had a question about practice. Recently I’ve been trying to develop longer stuff and I’ve found it hard to keep track of things while brainstorming. I’ll have an idea and there might be 5 branches I want to explore, so I start with one and more options come up and more questions, etc. It gets hard to distinguish between work and stuff to work on. I’ll get 4 pages in and then backtrack to dig out the next prompt or question. I’m wondering if you guys have any tips or tricks on how to avoid getting lost. Is it just a matter of working in smaller chunks and organizing as you go?

  17. I just had a thought to add another potential problem for the humans. It is discovered that the worms are the real source of the birds’ power so, as you said, humans can get the power directly from the worms. But, gaining the power directly has a negative effect on humans in some way, either by reducing a skill or power that they already have or by making them ill in some way. You do not get anything for free there is always a cost ;)

  18. Your podcast reminded me of Timothy Zahn’s “Cobra Strike” and his Mojo Birds. The protagonist in that book has another kind of problem: ‘convincing’ people to get rid of their birds! No worms or fish, though.

  19. If you make the birds really cool, and then at the end make them obsolete, that might ruffle the reader’s feathers a bit. [pun intended] It just seems like you’re making these birds seem very desirable and it sounded as if this explorer character would have a few birds and would use them often and it would be fun to see, and then suddenly at the end we realize that the birds aren’t anything special. Otherwise the story sounds great!

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