The Dead Robots' Society

Writers on Writing


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This week Ryan and Justin sit down with Terry to brainstorm his next novel idea. A lot of people have asked us about what brainstorming is like, and this session should go a long way toward illustrating just how valuable it can be. Enjoy!

Also, please remember that PG Holyfield is going to be doing a live broadcast of his Tales Of The Children podcast. The reading will be on 09/23/09 at 9:30 PM EST. Make sure you stop by!



  1. Good show. As for the elf-talk. I think you can make elves whatever you like. To me, so as long as they have pointed ears, they are elves.

    They don’t have to be elegant, or tall, or magical, etc. You can make them whatever you want.

    Some might say, “Call them something else” but pay that little mind.

    Regardless, you don’t need to slap a hand full of regular cliche elf things to make them elves.

  2. Wanted to comment on the show. Overall, an interesting episode to listen to. If I were in the “call” I’d have had a lot to say, so I figured I’d look for the show comments to offer my 2 cents. So while I may be critical of Terry here, I’m not a professional writer and not a more qualified literary judge than anyone else. I just have a different prespective than I heard on the show, so I thought I’d share it. If it isn’t helpful, disregard it. I hope that it generates some ideas!

    1) Ditch the stargate idea unless you want to write a stargate fanfic with an elven world in it. This is a kill your darlings moment, before even putting pen to paper. You want to come up with something more original, with different rules, so that you have your own sandbox. I don’t know that you could ever sell a novel that has stone intergalactic gates dug out of the ground. No one will see that as anything but a cheap ripoff. To be more helpful, I’d suggest pairing travel with the artifacts you mention. Maybe your main character figures out how to infuse an object with gatelike powers, which could be an end-of-novel climax if the story is about him finding his abilities.

    2) Strongly consider another profession. Private investigator seems cliche’. Tee Morris did well with the idea in his Billibub Baddings novel (which oh by the way was about a private investigator dwarf from a tolkein-like fairyland) but it was the time setting that he chose (old Chicago I think) that made it fun. I would suggest considering what makes the character different, what growing up with his advantages/disadvantages would be like, and what kind of career path that could lead to. If you want a maze of discovery, have him be an expert on dating artifacts or something, slowly collecting the items that drew his attention for some reason. More of a modern investigator working on his own mystery. Rather than a private investigator client, the love interest (which seems to be the key to your story though she wasn’t talked about much in the podcast) could be someone who is competing for his treasures, or perhaps won’t sell him one of them. I wouldn’t suggest a bad corporation that knows about him and hunts him or anything like that. I’d have his elvishness be something no one in the world is aware of. I’d make the conflict more internal.

    3) I was intruiged by the iron idea, not because I loved it but because I thought of a way to push it further. If these elves are going to be effected by something, why not base it as much in science as you can. Example: magnetic fields. We experience them all the time, every day. We don’t feel them, but what if we did? Maybe the earth’s magnetic field causes your main character discomfort, maybe even makes him sickly. What would he do in his life professionally? Probably something that takes him away from cities. You could even open with something like a recovery from an accident where he wakes up in an MRI machine, the ultimate torture device for his kind. It would establish he’s strange before the reader even finds out about the ears.

    4) Don’t call him an elf. Ever. Let the reader infer it. I think that would make a stronger story.

    5) Focus on one book at a time. You can have a longer arc in mind, but don’t put off all your best ideas for later.

    Ok, those are my biggest comments. I hope they’re helpful. I get the sense that you’re doing a lot of what my own brother does in his writing. When he writes, I can tell if he was inspired by a Terrentino movie or a Heist movie or whatever, because it is clearly imitative. You seem to be mashing stargate and lord of the rings without varying them enough first. You can be inspired by them, but you need to morph thing beyond recognizing the source if you want to ever hope to sell it. I know you don’t like to outline, but decide on the role of the artifacts and the shape of the climax before you start. I can’t imagine using pure discovery writing in an origins novel. Save the discovery for the relationship, but firm up the backstory. I think that’s what you’re trying to do, so I’m sure I’m being obvious here.

    I do think you can write this story. It seems to be in your head and sounds like a fun read once you work it all out. I’d suggest to keep bounching ideas off of people and push into a direction of originality. You’ve got to start somewhere, so take the feedback as a positive!

    Good luck.


  3. Hi guys – I really enjoyed this episode. It definitely had the feeling of sitting with some friends and talking. Even though I was talking to my car stereo, I felt involved 🙂

    I wanted to chime in to make sure that you knew about Tee Morris’ Billibub Baddings series, but I see Bryan beat me to it so I’ll just expand a little. Many of the key points are near identical. He’s a dwarf that is transported to our world and becomes a private eye. A case lands in his lap and it involves an artifact that he recognizes from his world. He discovers that there are multiple artifacts discovered around our world and sets out to recover them.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a similar story and taking it another direction, but you were hitting on points that all seemed to go to the same place.

    That being said, I had two different ideas about the protagonist’s origin;
    1) The mother is associated with somebody of wealth/power (wet nurse, or something). She is allowed to add the protagonist (as a baby) to a group being transported (since its so expensive there is no way she could have done it on her own). When he eventually makes it back “home”, perhaps he discovers that he’s actually the bastard son of the guy with wealth/power, and his lineage is significant.
    2) He is of royal blood, but it’s a relative (or somebody else who can ascend to the throne) who transports him to get him out of the way, so that they can take over.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. First ep I’m listening, to, but definitely sounds like something I’ll be tuning in to again.

    One thought, similar to Chooch’s: the protagonist is the child of someone in the royal court, but not of royal blood at all. (Although you can play with this misconception.) Perhaps, in fact, the parents did violence against the royal, forcing them to open a portal on pain of death (or perhaps, just before death) and sending the child through with a few trinkets of generally little significance from the room the portal had been opened in.

    While I hate the infectious and overwhelming nature of TV and movies to claim ideas and turn them into tropes, the Stargate and Kal-El comparisons are a little too immediate in this form, and Tee Morris does have a startiingly similar story when you boil it down. Looking for an investigative profession? Make him a reporter. A little too public? Make him a museum worker — not the bigshot lead, but a lowly (if respected and diligent) researcher.

    What you want is a place to get from there, to here. That requires a tunnel, door, archway, wormhole.. If the elven world is magical, think magically: any door can be a gateway, when the right energy/spell/symbolism is placed within it. Or physics warps in the area of the gateway, meaning that, by the time you are standing in front of the gate, you are upside down. Maybe the gates only open underwater, and your protagonist was fished out of the sea with strange wreckage, presumed to be a crashed ship from some far off land..

    You might also want to include an earthly antagonist, someone who suspects (or maybe has witnessed) the protagonist’s unearthly nature, but who isn’t credible enough to expose the protagonist or dangerous enough to actually hurt the protagonist (at least, at first). Imagine the private detective who stumbles into an alley and sees the protagonist glowing as he heals himself from a stab wound. It freaks him out, and he starts ruining his life to find out more. At some point, he managed to sprinkle iron flakes into the protagonist’s food, causing him to choke. Eventually, he can be reached out to, perhaps, converted and becoming a friend..

    Excellent idea generator, this show! Will keep listening..

  5. Hey guys… loved this show.
    I had a few Ideas to kick around. First, what if the artifacts are keys to the gate. maybe someone was trying to keep them away from the drow… keep them from getting to earth.

    Maybe there are a few among the elves/drow that can travel without the need for keys, your protag is one of them, but his power is more reflexive, because he has never used it consciously… and the only other time he has, it brought him to this world as a child… unless his mother instigated the first transfer…. but that gives you hooks for later.

    just a few thoughts…. might have more later.

    Shmoo, The Almighty

  6. I really did love this one, but now I want to hear the other end of things. The next time one of yall has something ready for a crit, please do it as a live episode. That would be immensely useful to me and other infant writers.


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