J.C. Hutchins: The Terribleminds Interview

This week the temporal streams have crossed. Bodies have perhaps been swapped, as if in a comedy starring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, or starring Lindsay Lohan and an incontinent horse. At the fore of this week, Mister J.C. “Hutch Snugglepants McGee” Hutchins interviewed me at his podcast (come and bathe in the soothing dulcet sounds of my weird voice), and in the same fell swoop turned in his answers for an interview here at Jolly Ol’ Terribleminds. If you don’t know Hutch, well, shame on you — podcaster, novelist, and above all else, consummate storyteller. I read a script of his and it knocked me on my ass. Here, then, is his interview. You can find his website here at jchutchins.net and you should, of course, follow his ass on the Twittertubes (@jchutchins). Remember: Momma gets a what-what.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Back in the 1990s, I used to freelance for Wizard, a now-defunct print magazine that covered the comic book industry. I had the great fortune to interview some of my favorite comic writers — undisputed greats such as Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis.

My favorite, and most memorable, interview was with writer Alan Moore. We talked about his new endeavor at the time, America’s Best Comics … and about his incredible legacy as a creator: Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, Watchmen. I probably gushed a bit about my favorite Superman comic story, which he wrote: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”

And then I asked him about his life as a practicing magician.

Now when I say “magician,” I don’t mean card tricks, smoke bombs and top hat rabbits. That’s being an illusionist. What I was discussing with Moore was the real deal, the ancient shit — magic magic, the kind you conjure with sorcery and summonings. Moore was an earnest believer, and because I’m a wildly open-minded dude when it comes to this sort of thing because of some peculiar life experiences of my own, I didn’t bat an eye at his belief.

My favorite part of the interview was when he recalled a conversation he once had with the an ancient and powerful entity — I think it was the god Mercury. Moore was fully aware of how mad it all sounded, but again, could only share his belief and the authenticity of his personal experience.

It was at this point when I asked him: “How do you know you were talking to the god Mercury?”

“Well, when it looks like a god, and it barks like a god, it’s probably a god,” he replied.

It was an awesome conversation. I still have the tape somewhere. I remember him having a great voice. Deep and raspy, like he gargled gravel.

So yes. Magic. Spells, communing with gods, awesome. What magic would you possess if you could?

All of the ultra-cool abilities of a Jedi master, but without the midi-chlorians.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

There’s plenty to love about being a writer. I reckon my favorite part of it is that a goodly chunk of my heart gets to stay young for, like, forever. I get to play make believe every day. It’s nuts: People pay me to pretend for a living. That’s a cool, blessed job to have.

It can get lonesome — it’s just you and your puny words, desperately trying to do justice to the vision in your head. And it can get scary — as a freelance creator, I sometimes don’t know where the next paycheck’s coming from. It’s intimidating too, as the kind of work I do can be experimental … which means I’m learning on-the-fly, under the gun. And it can be heartbreaking. There’s a lot of rejection in this business.

The dreamer side of me — the part that concocts stories and writes them — is an ever-optimist. It’s gotta be. I can’t create when my heart is stony. I need my heart. I need to fall in love with whatever I’m writing about.

The entrepreneur side of me — the one that worries about hunting, and bills and day rates — it learned long ago the value of managed expectations. I ship, I rewrite if needed, I birddog the check. This side of me insists I’ll never be more than what I presently am: a grease-grimed mechanic who’s here to fucking work.

This actually delights my inner optimist, because being a grease-grimed wordherder is all I’ve ever wanted to be.

Let’s talk about transmedia — you’re both fan and practitioner. Care to define what it is in your own words?

Sure. “Transmedia” is an emerging, and usually technology-fueled, way to tell stories. Transmedia narratives are designed to unfold in multiple storytelling media, often simultaneously.

Think of a physical newspaper. You read a front page story and experience its nonfiction narrative in many ways: Through the high concept headline, the body text, the photos and cutlines, a colorful infographic or two. Even the “Continued on Page A3” jump prompt states there’s more to consume if you expend the effort to find it … as does the boldfaced call to action to visit the newspaper’s website for “breaking news updates” on this story, including audio recordings and more in-depth reporting.

Each medium here tells its part of the story in ways that best plays to its strengths. Complex expositions are best-left to text … but text can never capture a moment as exquisitely as a photograph. But photographs can’t deliver the arresting immediacy of video or audio. And none of these media can rival experiencing the story first-hand, in the field.

That kind of packaged newspaper story is an ultra-simplistic example of what I consider transmedia: A cohesive narrative deliberately designed to be experienced through multiple media and multiple channels.

Now imagine building fictional narratives with this paradigm in mind: multiple media delivered through multiple channels — including live events that support the fictional conceit (in which your audience become participants) — all serving a common story. When you bake this compelling opportunity into the DNA of the stories you’re telling, things get very interesting and cool very quickly.

I’ve got a whole chunk of my brain presently dedicated to developing ways to apply this ecumenical approach to expanding not just the storytelling methods within a narrative … but the kinds of transmedia narratives one can create within a larger storyworld.

I believe that a fictional universe need not cater to a single genre or demographic. I’m working on developing transmedia intellectual properties that can accommodate all genres and demographics — from hard SF for teenagers to rom-coms for Baby Boomers. It’s very ambitious, but absolutely possible.

What’s the power of transmedia? And what are its perils?

To be clear: There will always be stories best-told through a single medium. Folks need not worry about their novels or movies going away. But I believe transmedia narratives will crack open storytelling in new ways that we’ll be exploring and experiencing for decades.

We’re already at a point where storytellers can economically craft narratives in which their characters can receive and send emails and phone messages from real people (aka consumers), post video blog “confessionals” or handheld location shots, and leave behind “evidence” in real life locations that can be documented and shared online by audience members. What I just mentioned is kindergarten, low-cost stuff … but is widely considered revolutionary by average consumers who are accustomed to passively consuming broadcast-style entertainment.

The true and disruptive potential of transmedia storytelling is that nearly everything around us — your phone, a billboard, a mailed letter, a t-shirt, a tweet — can be used to contribute to a cohesive narrative. Your narrative. That’ll blow your mind if you let it. And you should let it, because storytellers need to be thinking about this stuff.

The perils are as numerous as its promises. When you start adding additional media or channels to tell your story, you start adding time, effort and risk to the project. You also add expense, which can sharply decrease your number of achievable cross-media / cross-channel storytelling opportunities. I reckon this is why the most famous transmedia stories — such as the brilliant Alternate Reality Game Why So Serious? – are funded by mainstream entertainment entities as promotional vehicles for films, video games and TV shows. These stories have many moving parts. You gotta cough up cash for those parts, and for mechanics like me to make them go.

I also fear that transmedia storytelling will be forever linked to these event-like promotions, and won’t be find wider creator and audience acceptance. We’re getting there. There’ve been several downright genius indie transmedia experiences … and mainstream entertainment and video game studios are savvily exploring transmedia’s potential. But I reckon that until we’re on the cover of Newsweek, we’ll still be underground Morlocks in the eyes of mainstream consumers.

Don’t get me wrong, I kinda like being a Morlock. But I also want these stories to break out in wildly successful ways.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Cheerful. Cocksucker.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I’m not much of a boozer, but I consume astounding quantities of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Oh Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, I’d do anything for you.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I won’t be recommending anything you or your brilliant peeps haven’t already consumed, but sometimes it’s nice to revisit a story to study the thing, and marvel at its execution. When I think about great taletelling, my mind zips immediately to:

Books: Scalzi’s Old Man’s War … King’s The Stand, Pet Sematary and Bag of Bones … Deaver’s The Coffin Dancer … Vinge’s A Deepness In the Sky … Melzer’s The First Daughter. All masterpieces, on their own terms.

Comics: Thompson’s Blankets … much of Morrison’s run on JLA … Waid’s run on The Flash … Johns’ early-to-mid Flash stuff … Gaiman’s Sandman … Ennis’ Preacher … Woods’ DMZ … and nearly everything Ellis writes.

Movies: Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop, Aliens, Star Wars. Everything I learned about writing airtight plots, high-stakes conflicts and memorable characters came from studying these flicks.

Games: I loved the nontraditional, but very moving, storytelling in Ico and Portal, and how game company Valve brilliantly incorporated a more traditional narrative into Portal 2.

I’ve enjoyed the Mass Effect series’ branching narrative and superbly realized storyworld. L.A. Noire’s nuanced gameplay, and how that affects the unfolding story, is awfully cool.

Whenever I want inspiration for a great piss-and-vinegar, kill-em-all-deader-than-dead revenge story, I play some God of War III. I get to be a god slayer. How badass is that?

I’ve watched you recently get into video games (Uncharted, God of War, Portal 2). What’s the trick to good storytelling in games?

Earlier this year, I bought a PlayStation 3 to replace an unreliable shitheap Samsung Blu-Ray player. On a lark, I fired up the complimentary game that came with the console — Killzone 3 — and within minutes, was literally getting weepy. I was absolutely humbled by the spectacle, and the quality of writing, music, sound effects and visuals.

I sucked at the game — it had been 10 years since I’d gamed — but I immediately saw video games as the legitimate storytelling frontier it in fact is. I made a decision right there, within 10 minutes of firing up that PS3, to do whatever I needed to do so’s I could write video games someday.

That means gaming my ass off, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.

Games are a unique breed of storytelling. But they’re still stories, so many of the “must-haves” in other media must be represented in games: interesting characters and conflicts, larger machinations that are revealed over the course of the narrative, a theme and emotional anchor driving the story, foreshadowing and payoff … that stuff.

The popular theory seems to be that video game players are there to play, not watch a movie. Savvy developers are catering to this. Games like Gears of War 3 have nailed a successful formula — brief cutscenes, with exposition delivered through gameplay dialogue. (As opposed to all exposition being delivered via cutscenes.) I read somewhere that the longest cutscene in Gears of War 3 was 40-odd seconds. The rest of the narrative was smartly delivered as the player explored the world.

Personally, I love cutscenes. I don’t mind relinquishing control of the experience so long as my recent hard-fought victory (against a level boss, for instance) is rewarded with an appropriately cool plot twist or an emotionally resonant character arc.

To me, that’s what games are: fun problem-solving experiences. The best game narratives understand that effort / reward dynamic, and effectively amp up your investment of effort as the game progresses … and rewards that effort with an equally amped-up story and stakes. I like my video game narratives to be jaw-dropping epics — but it’s the emotional growth of the character (and needing to know what happens next) that keeps me coming back.

That’s just like any other well-told story.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

My horrified screams of mercy — and then my howls of suffering as the undead shred open my stomach and feast on my intestines (and I’ll still be conscious through the whole thing, watching them feast, silently marveling, “How did all of that fit inside my body, oh my god, sausage, it looks like long ropes of sausage”) — will undoubtedly inspire others to learn how to properly load a firearm.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Angelina Jolie.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’m collaborating with marketing agency Campfire on a few groundbreaking marketing campaigns. One is for a TV miniseries based on a bestselling horror novel; the other is for a multi-console video game. These are a lot of fun because I get to help expand the storyworlds of those universes and use my writing and research skills in many different ways. One of those campaigns will go live later this year.

I’m also the lead writer on a new tabletop miniatures game currently in development. That’s a ton of fun because I get to do some serious worldbuilding. I’ve also got an ownership stake in that game, so I’m personally invested in its success — which always helps bring focus and one’s best work to a project. That’ll be out next year.

I’m also on the prowl for video game writing opportunities. I’ll continue to pursue that in earnest in 2012.

As for my personal work, I’ll release two novels, a short story anthology and probably a novella into several ebook marketplaces by year’s end. There’s also a mile-long list of stories and screenplays to write. It’s never a dull moment around here. Inside my noggin, I mean.

Got any writing or storytelling advice for folks?

Humans are capable of making all kinds of cool stuff, but we can’t make more time. Tick-tock, we can’t get it back. Past tense, man. Gone baby, gone — forever.

How much of that gone-baby-gone time have you spent talking about writing, and not actually writing? How many hours, days, weeks, months, years — sweet Jesus, decades — have you spent telling others about all the stories you’ll someday write? That novel. That comic book. That screenplay. Memoir. Whatever.

You’ll never get that time back. Ever. That’s time you could have spent living your dreams by writing your stories. Your lip-flapping is actively sabotaging your chances of achieving your dreams. Shame on you. You’ve talked enough.

That’s my advice. You’re either a writer or you aren’t. Writers write. So write.

8 comments

  • @ J.C., in case you’re reading.
    Wizard? I loved Wizard and I’m sure I have read some of your articles. I didn’t know it was defunct. Thanks for shattering my world-view. Just kidding. It would have been shattered nonetheless. I’m ashamed to say I have not knowingly read your other work. Will rectify that posthaste! (don’t be offended– I am totally not with it. I have a world of writers to get familiar with!)

    Cheers-

  • @J.C. Wow, that was a pretty cool way of describing transmedia. I’ve recently started to look into it a little more. Is there any transmedia projects you really admire/recommend besides the Why So Serious one?

  • Excellent interview, guys. I’ll have to check out the other side of this later today. Strange, but I always wonder what writers sound like in person (or over an internet connection, you get the idea).

    Very interesting discussion on transmedia; I’ve always been a bit fuzzy on it, and this certainly helped my understanding.

  • @Lee: Yep, Wizard vanished from magazine racks earlier this year, I think. Like all print magazines, I bet the speed, economy and competition of web-based competitors made an impact on their perceived relevance and bottom line.

    @Dan: Glad that “101-style” transmedia explanation resonated with you. I recommend visiting two sites — ARGN and Unfiction, easy to find via Google — to learn more, and to discover some of the beloved transmedia stories that have been told in recent years!

    @Ryan: Thanks for the feedback, re: transmedia. It’s a groundbreaking way to tell stories. Glad it helped with your understanding!

    @Amber: Yay for gaming! And writing! :)

  • Transmedia storytelling! I’ve never heard it described like you did, so passionate and hopeful. And you’re doing so much with it–I can’t wait to see what other work you come up with. I can’t wait to get into it myself.
    This was a splendid interview with a brilliant chap.

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