Andrea Phillips: The Terribleminds Interview

I met Andrea Phillips one night at one of our local “Cult of Transmedia” meetings, which takes place across a blog, a smartphone, a movie screen, a walking tour of NYC, and a Denny’s diner menu downloaded into the brain of Abraham Lincoln. She is, quite plainly, a transmedia proselyte and guru all at the same time, and you must heed her words as a storyteller unless I break all the bones in your feet. And there are a great many bones in your feet. Her new book — A Creator’s Guide To Transmedia — is out and demands your attention. You can find her at her blog castle — deusexmachinatio.com/ — and on the Twitters (@andrhia).

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.

When the mouse moved in, the first thing it did was leave tiny, scalloped toothmarks all along the edge of a chocolate bar I’d carelessly left half-wrapped in front of the toaster oven. This was no cheap drugstore chocolate; no, this was the exotic kind from the organic foods store shot through with dried cherries and chili peppers. To this day, I wish I could have finished that particular chocolate bar. It was delicious, and I had only eaten two squares.

Living with a rodent was not to be tolerated, of course. Zero tolerance. But we are nothing if not kind to animals in this house! We read up on mice on the internet, as one does. We stuffed the crevices of our home with soapy steel wool and caulk. (To this day, our entry closet looks like it lost an encounter with a libertine tube of toothpaste.) We put all our food in the refrigerator, in the microwave, in plastic containers so new they probably contaminated every morsel with carcinogenic outgassing.

We devised elaborate traps with greased buckets and precariously balanced rulers. We went to sleep at night cocooned in the smug knowledge that these gentle, no-kill solutions were the right thing to do, from an ethical and academic perspective.

But they did not catch the mouse. We knew it was still with us; it gifted us with rich curls of sesame seed-like droppings on the kitchen counter every morning.

As days passed with no resolution, our humane concern for the well-being of the mouse darkened and broke. We could not live with a mouse. Zero tolerance! The mouse, we resolved, must die.

Too squeamish, we, to deploy snap traps or glue sheets where we might need to handle a rodent corpse. We obtained a mouse-size electrocution chamber from the shame-free privacy of the internet, loaded it with the provided kibble, and deployed it, trying not to think about the burnt fur aroma we might wake to one morning.

There was no dead mouse the next day, nor a live one. The mouse zapper showed no sign that a mouse had so much as passed it by. We fretted about what must be done next.

There were few further measures to take. We considered, again, snap traps and glue — so unsanitary (but so was the mouse.) So unsafe for the small children. So very personal.

But perhaps we had no choice. We must face our grisly responsibility. We would do it. We would do it tomorrow. No, tomorrow. …maybe on the weekend. Or next weekend.

One bright Saturday morning, I stumbled downstairs bleary-eyed and bushy-haired to make breakfast for the child. My eyes slowly focused on a tiny movement on the counter. There it was: the mouse. It stared me dead in the eye and held its ground.

For my part, I leapt back, knocking over a chair, and shrieked for aid from my male counterpart in the household, thereby abandoning all feminist ideology in the interest of avoiding this fearsome vermin-handling task.

The mouse did not turn tail and run. Instead, it stood there in the center of a plate of pancakes, surrounded by its own shit, quivering in fear, its huge black eyes fixed upon me. It was mousy blonde and white-bellied and terrified out of its almond-sized brain.

The child had left a half-eaten plate of pancakes and pooled syrup on the kitchen counter. We, long fatigued by the unaccustomed cleanliness imposed upon us by the mouse starvation regime, had let it sit overnight. The syrup had congealed into something thick, viscous, supernaturally sticky. The mouse, craving pancakes, had crept onto the plate and become hopelessly stuck.

My husband — o hero! — gathered together his thickest gloves, meant for yard work. He took the mouse and its unlikely trap to the hedge at the edge of our yard. There, be bravely pried the poor mouse off the plate with one of our second-best forks. The mouse shook itself, he said, and scampered off toward the neighbor’s house.

We never saw the mouse again. But we still wonder, sometimes, if a hawk or cat caught up with it that day, an easy snack half-dead already from fright, and wondered at its sweet, buttery flavor.

Why do you tell stories?

I could talk a good game and tell you it’s because I have something to say about the human condition or blah blah untapped potential fulfillment spiritual blah blah stories are the fabric of culture blah building consensus reality blah. This would be an egregious lie.

I tell stories because I desperately want people to like me. LOVE me, even. Growing up, I was good at stringing words together in a pleasing way, and so I got praise and affection and people telling me I should be a writer when I grew up. It was relentless. Since I want the other monkeys to like me, and this is the trick I’ve done that made them like me the most in the past… the logical thing is to keep doing that trick.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Ideas are cheap; execution is hard. It’s really easy to get hung up on the exceptional beauty of our ideas. So unique! So unprecedented! So brilliant! Writers are prone to jealously guarding even rough concepts for fear that they will be stolen by other, nefarious writers or movie execs or publishers who will take these brilliant brain-children and exploit them without credit or payment.

This is ridiculous. You and I and every single other Terrible Minds reader could all set out to write the same story, and odds are no two stories would be the same. For proof of that, just look at the variety that turns up here in the contests!

That’s because the story being told isn’t generally the thing an audience cares about, so much as the telling. The words and flow and pace and tension. The best idea in the world won’t shine through a brutal, inelegant telling. But we’ll read a whole book by Hemingway about a fisherman sitting in a boat by himself, and the whole romance industry is based around one basic plot. But we don’t care because the telling is all that matters.

Okay, so, how do you tell a story that’s all yours and in your voice?

I feel like ‘all yours’ and ‘in your voice’ are completely separate issues. I could be cute and say any story you write is yours, but that’s a little intellectually dishonest. I could say that writing a story that comes entirely from inside you makes it all yours… But there is no such thing as art in a vacuum. I don’t think there’s a writer alive capable of writing a story that comes 100% from within.

You can develop a sort of internal compass, though, to check whether you’re making creative decisions because they’re the right ones and you understand why you’re making them… Or if you’re using plots or phrases and so on because you think somebody else would make them. (Though if you’re writing satire or parody, even that’s the right thing to do!)

I had an experience just this year where I was trying to write a campy, funny James Bond-type story, and I was stuck on it for months. Every sentence I wrote came out wrong. Eventually I just let the words fall as they would. The story that came out of that (The Secret of Cielos Azules, in my e-published short story collection Shiva’s Mother and Other Stories) had the same basic plot I’d planned all along, but it wasn’t campy or funny at all. I wasted a lot of time trying to make the story what I thought it should be with my ego. I should have been just letting the story come out the way my id wanted it.

As for voice… let’s put a little controversy out there: I don’t believe there is such a thing as one true voice that is yours. All of us have a sort of cadence and flow when we speak, right? But even that changes depending on who you’re with and what kind of impression you’re trying to make. There’s the voice you use with your friends, the one you use at work, and if you go abroad you may find yourself adopting the same accent and speech patterns as the people you’re spending time with.

Just like that, for writing I have a sort of Twitter writing voice, a Snark Modern voice I use for some kinds of first person stories, a moody, literary voice for more somber work… And even that changes depending on who I’ve been reading. (You make me swear more in my head, Chuck, and I am not the swearing kind, either!)

In fact, in a transmedia project, it’s important to me to create distinct voices for each character, so they all feel like themselves. I’ve never been sure why “finding your voice” is even a goal for a writer. Voice is a tool, just like character and pacing. Nobody is telling you to find your one true protagonist or storyworld. So shouldn’t we be ventriloquists, using the voice that most effectively gets the job done, no matter what it might be?’

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a young, impressionable, blonde freshman in college, I took a creative writing course. That professor consistently told me my work was “too sentimental.” It took me until just last year, when I found some of those papers in an old box, to realize what he probably meant was, “your writing is too personal and contaminated with girly emotion cooties.”

My childhood was something of an adventure, and not always the fun kind. So in college I was working through some difficult things by writing about them; the pieces I turned in were very much about loss and choice and forgiveness, all themes that still show up in my work now. I was writing things that felt true — in some cases stories that were literally true. Writing about what was important to me! And I was told that was wrong.

I took his advice to heart and tried very hard to not be sentimental. Turns out I can’t not be sentimental unless I’m not writing, so for a long time after that I struggled to write anything. Years and years lost because an authority figure told me MY stories weren’t the right ones.

These days, I’ve been told that same sentimentality translates into depth of emotion in the stories I tell, and it’s one of the best things I have going as a writer. The moral of the story: absolutely let people teach you how to write better from a technical perspective… but never let anyone else dictate what you write. Only you know what stories you need to tell.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

When I was a lass, my characters were visual: collections of facts about hair and eye color, maybe wardrobe, and maybe a place in the world like “healer” or “warrior” ripped straight from a paper RPG. Now, I see character as the sum of their experiences. A really strong character is a network of relationships to all kinds of people and things — and those relationships should influence everything the character does.

Let’s say we’re making a woman in her late 20s who is jealous of her sister. That means she’ll probably be competitive whenever that’s possible, try to steal the spotlight, try to undercut the sister’s accomplishments. You can get a lot of mileage out of just that.

But true strength of character comes when you build in more layers, more relationships, and you understand why they are the way they are. So instead of just ‘jealous,’ we could create a reason for it. Maybe a history where the sister had cancer when they were small children, and our character (let’s call her Susan) was ignored a lot. That means Susan had the recurring experience of wanting attention but feeling guilty about wanting it; so even when she gets it, she feels worse for taking the spotlight off the maybe-dying sister. And we might also see Susan showing a complex resentment of her parents, too, who gave everything they had to the child they were afraid of losing; but of course Susan still desperately wants their approval, too.

Nobody in the world has only one significant relationship or experience. And it’s rare to feel only one thing about another person (or anything else.) To me, strength of character means nuance and texture. Knowing not just how a character acts, but how it is they got there.

I’ve only just this year watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fifteen years too late. I found it an exceptional education in writing, and particularly in writing great, strong characters. The main ensemble is just exquisitely written, because the more you discover about who these people are, the richer they get, and the more sense they make. Giles isn’t just the wise mentor trying to do right by his pupil; he has battle scars from a misspent youth, and that comes out in badass fighting skills and a way with a guitar. He has a romantic life beyond his role on the show. He’s sometimes impatient and lacking in faith; there is evidence everywhere that what you see on the show isn’t the only interesting thing about him.

That makes him something much more interesting than someone like, say, Yoda, who is basically lacking in personal history (at least in the films.) People are complicated and sometimes even inconsistent. A great writer will make hay with that.

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

I had a whole list to recommend, and then I stopped and thought about media that have really, deeply affected me, and came up with exactly one thing. It’s a Jason Rohrer game called Gravitation. It’s… basically it’s a metaphor for trying to balance the creative spark with life and a family. Go download it and play it now. I’m not 100% sure I’d call it a great story as such… but it is a really moving experience, and isn’t that one of the things we’re looking for when we read a story?

This game is so amazing that I can’t even think about it or describe it without getting tears in my eyes, it struck me that hard. Though we’ve already established I am sentimental! So there’s that!

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

My favorite word right now is “finished.” It’s very, very good to see things through to the end and bid them a fond adieu. Ask me tomorrow and it’ll probably be different, though. I hate picking a favorite anything!

My favorite curse word has been the same for several years now, though. It is “wanion.” It’s archaic and sort of piratey!

We stumbled on it working on a game called Perplex City, when a character was swearing in a 200-year-old diary. Typical period-appropriate swearing (your common “Jesu!” or even “‘Sblood!”) was all related to Christianity. But this particular society never had Christ, so we had to dig a little deeper for a non-religious curse word. Also it is fun to say! Now you’ll use it, too.

Tell us about Perplex City, and what you learned from that experience:

Maybe I should explain what the heck Perplex City was? It was a card game, a treasure hunt, a persistent online world. We created a fictional alternate place called Perplex City, a puzzle-driven society where intellect reigns supreme. A dangerous, priceless artifact was stolen from the city and they traced its location to Earth, so the Perplexians did the only logical thing (to them): they created a series of puzzle cards to intrigue Earth and persuade them to help find this missing Cube. I promise it was in no way hokey in the way that this sounds, and was rife with theft, conspiracy, dark histories, murder, torture, even genocide.

This played out in online media to make the city feel real — a weekly newspaper, characters who blogged and would email you back and ask your advice, a plot that would adapt to the suggestions of the audience. We also sold actual puzzle cards in packs of five, created a CD of music, a print magazine, and had several live events in London, San Francisco, and New York. And this missing Cube was a real thing. A gentleman named Andy Darley dug it up where it had been hidden in the woods at the end of the season, and got a $200,000 reward for his trouble.

Perplex City is my origin story, my formative experience. I learned how to be a professional from Perplex City. I learned about filing words even when you don’t feel any juice, which is most of the time. I wrote a quarter of a million words in two years on that project. And I learned that the end quality of the work is usually so much the same that when you look back a year later, you really can’t tell which pieces were a slog and which came to you like lightning straight into your brain.

I also learned to get it right the first time, because in two years I don’t think we ever did a second draft. We didn’t have the time. Learning to go back to something and refine it is still a skill I’m a little weak on, to be honest. I’m used to just writing something and sending it out into the world to see how it does.

It ran for two years. I worked on it for three. When the project was cancelled, I cried for three days solid. That’s another important lesson I learned. Don’t ever, ever get too invested in work-for-hire. Absolutely put in your best work and absolutely be proud of it, but don’t give it your heart, because once the curtain falls, it won’t belong to you anymore.

So, just what the hell is “transmedia” and why should anybody care?

Let’s get all academic up in here! Transmedia is the art of telling ONE story through MULTIPLE media, such that each medium is making a UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION to the whole story. That’s some Dr. Henry Jenkins right there.

What that means is: a story where Princess Leia and Han Solo fall in love in the films, but you need to read the books to see that love story through and find out that they get married and have twin babies. But when these stories begin to seep across social and interactive media, you see some interesting things happen: An online community “stealing a bus” for the Joker, they he then uses in the film as an escape vehicle for a bank heist, as with The Dark Knight. Or there are shows like How I Met Your Mother, where the TV sets up a joke and a one-off website or video (like the Robin Sparkles masterworks) delivers the punchline.

It’s about expansion and connection. It’s about making stories with more layers and textures to them than you could convey in one medium… and still tell a good story in that one medium.

But, you know, you don’t have to care? If you don’t want to? Single-medium stories are as powerful as they ever were, and they will always be with us. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you’re good at.

That said, I do advocate for every writer to try at least dabbling in transmedia techniques. One reason is the sheer joy of it. When you write a novel or a short story, you write, revise, publish, and then you bite your nails and hope somebody reads it and maybe tells you what they think someday. But reading is generally a solitary and not terribly social activity, and every writer I know yearns for good feedback.

One of the emergent properties of transmedia, though, is audience speculation. So as soon as you put a piece of a story out there, the audience huddles together to talk about it and how it all fits together and what it means. This kind of instant feedback is better than heroin. And then you can take this knowledge about what your audience is and isn’t responding to and tweak the next pieces to work a little better. Maybe a character you need to be sympathetic is coming off as a pompous jerk, so you insert a moment with a pet to add humanity. Maybe the audience loves your B-plot romance so you expand its significance. It’s so much fun, so much fun, and the work you do under those conditions always has a sort of fizzy, unpredictable magnificence.

And when you move into interactive media, you can work with a richer emotional palette than a flat medium like film or a novel. You can not only make people laugh and cry, you can make them feel proud or guilty about events in your narrative.

The other reason is a more calculating economic stance. When you tell a story, you’re sallying forth into a battlefield. See, there’s a pitched war going on for attention right now. There are audiences who will skim your work and move on, always. But there are also people who want to dive deep into your work and see what you’ve hidden beneath the surface. If you don’t have anything waiting to reward these people for loving you more and better, you’re taking a gamble that in between now and the next thing you publish or distribute, they won’t find something else to love more than you.

I see expanding a story into a transmedia execution as writing a love letter to your fans and telling them that yes, you love them back just as much as they love you, and you’ll always be there for them. Expanding your story across media is a way to make them feel more connected to that thing you made that they love, like there’s more of it, even in the gaps between major installments of a story. It builds loyalty, and that’s a precious resource in these times.

Where do a lot of creators go wrong with transmedia?

Not only could I write a whole book about this… I think I did! But let’s stick to just one of the Big Rookie Mistakes.

Basically the big, common mistake I see is thinking too much about the story, and not enough about the audience’s experience of that story. Transmedia doesn’t have to mean a footprint sprawling across half the internets, and if any piece isn’t adding specific and measurable value to your story for your audience, you need to cut it just like you’d murder your darlings in any other writing context. When you’re just adding on pieces of story willy-nilly, you risk confusing your audience, and when you confuse your audience, they go find something else to love more than you.

Sometimes you see a really complicated structure out there in a misguided effort to make something look realistic, but even that’s often a red herring. What creators are striving for is authenticity, that deep sort of emotional truth, and they try to obtain authenticity by making it look like all of this is Really Real.

Even early novels did this — searching for authenticity through realism, so we have all of these novels that were ‘collections of papers found in an attic’ and ‘a strange journal I bought at market.’ It’s something we’ll grow out of, too, once we become comfortable in our own legitimacy.

What’s one transmedia project that got it right, in your mind?

Only one?! Right this minute I’m enamored of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, a web series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that plays out on social media, too. The thing I love about it is it’s as deep as you want it to be. If you just want to watch the web series, great! If you want to see what’s happening on Twitter, that’s aggregated for you through Storify. If you want to follow them yourself on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and talk to the characters… You can! And each of these progressively more involved ways of consuming the story are rewarded. It’s great design.

And on top of that, the writing is hilarious, the actors are all fantastic, and it’s fun to see how this familiar story plays out despite a shift to a modern-day setting. So far I’ve been really impressed with it.

I’m also impressed with Dirty Work, an interactive web series out of Fourth Wall Studios in LA. I think they’re not yet exploiting the value of their tools to their fullest potential, and even what they have now is smart, funny, intensely creative, and absolutely nothing you’d see on network television. It’s practically custom-made for Terrible Minds readers to love it to little tiny pieces, in fact.

But there’s really so much great work out there right now, even work that might not call itself transmedia but has definite family resemblances. That’s the most exciting thing to me in all of this — this blossoming of experimentation. Sky’s the limit, and every one of us has a rocket to get there!

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

My favorite alcoholic beverages are the ones that come to me more or less complete. Usually this means juicy, meaty red wines. My method of choosing wines involves selecting the ones with the most attractive labels, figuring the vineyard has done their demographic research and the designs I like are specifically geared toward people like me. Also figuring that the vineyards who can afford great designers are doing pretty well and so maybe their wine does not suck. THIS METHOD IS FLAWLESS SHUT UP.

I am also very fond of tiki drinks made by tiki drink experts with garnishes so extreme they need permits from the city council and, ideally, are shooting flames. The whole point of those, though, is that I am not the one who makes them, but instead they have been carefully mixolified by a professional. No recipe for you!

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

Soldering. I’ve done it once before, and let me assure you, I am like some kind of solder ninja! When the robots come, I will be unstoppable as I relentlessly solder their wires and transistors into place based on the experience eked out in my single five-minute soldering session from three years ago!

– No, wait, that would help the robots and not the people, wouldn’t it? So then I got nothing. If humanity’s future is riding on me against the robots, we’re all screwed. Yeah, sorry.

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

Rainbows and unicorns and kittens! Hopefully?

So I have this book coming out on June 22: ‘A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling.’ I am excited and also terrified! That’s the big thing devouring my time and causing my crippling midnight anxiety for the next few weeks. Fingers crossed people get a lot out of the book.

Then in July I’ll be launching a Kickstarted project called Balance of Powers with some friends — Naomi Alderman, Adrian Hon, and David Varela. It’s an alt-history occult cold-war narrative told in episodes, and we’re also including some transmedia elements, like a printed newspaper and an online event. We can’t wait to share this world with an audience.

After that, I have a serial fiction project called Felicity that I’m just developing now as a part of my grand master plan to push out more independent work under my own flag. It’s a big step for me; most of my fiction to date has been commissioned for specific purposes (a marketing campaign, a show that was already pitched, that kind of thing.)

I bleed to just do my own thing for a while. The income stream is a lot less certain, but I’m trying to be brave and bet on myself for the long game. It’s all any of us can do, right?

13 comments

  • Either this interview is carefully constructed by a marketing team specifically for me, or Andrea Phillips is my new favorite blogger (sorry, Chuck!).

    Every answer and piece of advice for storytelling was awesome, and then she went into her background making games and trans-media work. I haven’t followed a piece of trans-media fiction (or ARGs, I guess they can be called?) since the one for the TV show Heroes, but you’ve turned me around.

    I then went on Amazon, read everything in the free preview, and added the book to my wishlist (sorry, poor at the moment!). In the columns of endless backpatting that are so many blog forums, I have never been so genuine in my enthusiam for an article read than I am right now. Thank you Andrea Phillips, and thank you Chuck for interviews like these.

  • “Ideas are cheap; execution is hard. It’s really easy to get hung up on the exceptional beauty of our ideas. So unique! So unprecedented! So brilliant! Writers are prone to jealously guarding even rough concepts for fear that they will be stolen by other, nefarious writers or movie execs or publishers who will take these brilliant brain-children and exploit them without credit or payment.”

    I can’t even begin to say how many times I’ve tried to say this to people. No one wants your damned idea! Actually write it out and its yours.

    So no. Thank you!

  • I love when people I like and admire hang out and chat. It’s like we have a secret clubhouse in a tree somewhere. Except we have a bar now. And a fire poll. One of my favorite combinations.

  • “I bleed to just do my own thing for a while. The income stream is a lot less certain, but I’m trying to be brave and bet on myself for the long game. It’s all any of us can do, right?”

    Here-here. Looking forward to checking out the book. Still trying to wrap my robot brain around transmedia. Thanks for the insight.

  • your mind moves in such wonderfully terrible ways, Andrea. Thanks for the incongruous yellow hardback book purchased as a result of your podcast description of it’s pretty margins – they are! – which I then used to gird my MeetUp team’s loins against all the imagined horrors of our first Transmedia Jam!- (no loins harmed, even when (possibly) no platforms crossed…) we’ve never done this, we don’t know each other, and I why don’t I resemble nor trust any relative in any of the 7 transmedia families- though I love and trust my own dearly? And then there’s soldering…

    You are clearly a leader- both of transmedianauts, and robots.

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