Stories About Stories: Experimenting with Form, Content, Audience
I know Lucas from my time in the Transmedia Trenches — he’s a smart dude with big ideas and plans to get them done. So, when he wants to sit and talk about story and the form of story, hey, I’m listening. And, I hope, you’ll listen, too.
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(or, How To Spend Five Years On One Crazy Project Because You Care, Damnit)
A few years ago, I wrote a story called Azrael’s Stop. It’s a fantasy story about a teenager named Ceph who’s had to deal with a lot of death in his life—his whole family, a childhood friend, his best friend from school… And it’s kind of fucked him up. He thinks that everyone he loves is going to die, and so he won’t let himself get close to anyone.
Then a mysterious man brings him to a bar called Azrael’s Stop—said to be the watering hole of the Angel of Death Himself—and sets him up as the bartender. People start coming to the bar, people who are either ready to pass on from this world and just need someone to share their story with, or people who, like Ceph, have experienced death and need help dealing with it.
Why did the mysterious man bring him here? How is Ceph supposed to continue to live his life? How can he let himself have friends, or fall in love? Why is there a crow living in the bar, why does she keep shitting on the floor, and why does she only caw when someone dies in Azrael’s Stop?
The story takes place a day at a time over the course of a year, and is about depression and alcoholism and friendship and love and music and of course death—but more than that, it’s about how we live, and how the stories we share help us live better.
Azrael’s Stop was first conceived at the start of 2011 — a date which still reads to me like yesterday but was, in fact, a while ago.
I was just out of school and starting to figure out what I wanted my career to look like—starting out as mostly a freelance writer working towards his own original projects, novels, and more. I was not yet even considering that my company Silverstring Media would end up primarily making videogames.
I had dreams of working on big projects, games and transmedia franchises of my own creation, but I decided I needed to start something new first, something small, something that could help find me an audience. I liked the idea of serial fiction, which I could roll out over time and slowly build an audience as the project itself grew—but I also didn’t want something that would take up all of my time.
I wanted something small. And easy. That wouldn’t take much time at all.
And this is the point where present-me would slap past-me. Because what I ended up with is much more than my original concept imagined—and took a lot more time.
So rather than try to write full stories every week or even every month, which I figured I wouldn’t be able to have time for or keep up with, I landed on the idea of “Twitter fiction.” I would post one single tweet every day, and over time it would all come together to form the full story.
However, I didn’t want to simply have each tweet be a sentence, with all the tweets needing to be strung together to form the story; Twitter is too ephemeral for that to work, and the story would be too disjointed for potential readers. Rather, each tweet would in itself be a micro-story, a complete thought or scene contained in 140 characters, each one taking place a day later, chronologically, from the previous one.
Thus, each day would be a snapshot into the lives of the characters and the setting they inhabit—it would be about a small core of characters and a single setting, so that over time the audience would get to know those characters and that tavern, without needing a lot of extraneous explanation, and without needing the audience to necessarily see every single tweet.
The story would be very thematic, about establishing a particular tone and themes, characters that grow only slowly over time. I developed the concept of the bar where death visits, the mythology that would grow around it, and the characters that would inhabit it.
Then, I started writing content, one tweet at a time. It was a challenge to keep everything in 140 characters, sometimes, but it was good practice to keep writing succinct (and finding ways to squeeze more in, like leaving out occasional spaces…). Once I had a small buffer of content, I launched by project—exclusively on Twitter, at @azraelsstop—with my first tweet:
They said people came to the Stop to die.
They said Death himself was a patron.
But Ceph didn’t trade in rumour. He just served drinks.
By the end of the first month of content—content I was certainly proud of, but by no means had achieved much of an audience yet—I was ready to introduce the second part of my story concept: I wanted each month of tweets to be augmented by some other kind of content. Wanting this to be an experiment in “transmedia”—which I was particularly into at the time—I didn’t want to limit what kind of content that could be. I envisioned short stories, music, games, photo essays, comics, audio plays, and whatever else I could think of.
That first month, I posted a fairy tale—Biggles and the Departed—which as purely text-based fiction was something I could produce myself. I hoped to attract others to work with me on future installments, as I didn’t have audio or art skills or anything.
Music I knew I could do, since my best friend and now multi-project-co-creator Devin Vibert is a composer, so the end of the second month featured the song Elegy of the Twilight Prince, as performed by one of the characters of the story. Over the course of the project, I did manage a fairly wide variety of content: an interactive fiction game, a kind of photo essay, an audio play (with what little talent I could find at the time)…
But it was only a couple months before two problems caught up with me: Azrael’s Stop was, despite my original intent, still requiring too much of my time; and I wasn’t seeing the kind of results from it that I had hoped for. And so I decided to put the project on hiatus and reevaluate my strategy.
I ended up doing this twice over the course of the project. That first hiatus, I realized that being only on Twitter was restricting my potential audience; while I liked the easily-shareable potential and content size limit, and knew that even people without a Twitter account could follow along, for my friends without Twitter it still seemed overwhelming or unintuitive to follow. So I brought Azrael’s Stop to Facebook as well—and took the time to make sure I had more content to post before relaunching.
By the time I took the second hiatus, I transformed the project into what it is now. I needed a central hub for the project online, rather than just the multiple disconnected social media accounts, so I created azraelsstop.com. I scrapped the idea of having so many different media between months—those pieces of content were becoming more vital to the story, but having them all be different was both alienating to the audience and impossible to keep up with as a creator (especially without a larger team). I added a prologue to help bring readers into the world, and finished writing all the content so I wouldn’t run out again before the end, then compiled it all into an ebook—hoping I could interest readers in purchasing the full book immediately rather than waiting for it to roll out one day at a time. And Devin composed music not just for the three songs the character sings over the course of the story, but for every major chapter, comprising the one transmedia extension that ended up in the final product, and the one I thought was most important and useful.
All in all, Azrael’s Stop didn’t come to its final conclusion until December 2013—a full year later than intended. It found its biggest audience on Wattpad, where being featured led to it receiving about 3,200 reads all the way through (with 325,000 of just the prologue), but otherwise had remained modest in audience. Azrael’s Stop was an experiment in storytelling, and while much of it never worked out the way I originally envisioned, or got as big as I had hoped, I am very proud of the book and album that resulted from it.
In the tavern, stories are shared as a form of rebirth. The stories of both the main characters and the often-nameless patrons that visit allow the characters to learn and grow, to move on from the pain of death or move on from the pain of life.
While creating the project, I always envisioned a way for my audience to join the patrons of the Stop, to provide their own stories. Early on, I had some friends and family share their own Tweet-sized stories with me.
When a dream of her long-dead father was gifted, it was bittersweet: wonderful to hear his voice, but then she missed him all over again.
~ Freda Johnson (hi mom!)
But ultimately I wanted something bigger, and so I developed the idea that became Tales of the Stop, an anthology of short stories that took place in Azrael’s Stop alongside my main story. I reached out to my audience on social media, to friends, and even to sites that list public writing opportunities.
It was an interesting proposition, because I wasn’t simply asking for stories around a particular theme, but stories that existed in my world, with the characters I had created. I was inviting people into my original space, to take my creation further, but in doing so was asking a lot.
But I was thrilled with the response. I received a good number of submissions, some from friends (such as previous-Terrible-Minds-guest-poster Andrea Phillips) and some from strangers who had simply liked Azrael’s Stop. Not every submission was fantastic, but I ended up with ten new stories (including a one-act play and a piece of Interactive Fiction) that I loved.
It was a lot of work to corral those stories together, to edit them, to work out the legal details and compile everything into an ebook. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated, especially with life and other projects getting in the way. But I am extremely proud of each story that ended up making it into this anthology, from friend and stranger alike: from the examination of motherhood in Changed and Changing to the examination of suicide in Pieces; from accepting the past in Facing Secrets to accepting the future in The Hammer and the Nail; from exploring the stranger places in the world I made in Long Journey’s End to exploring other worlds entirely in Death and His Deer; from the powerful friendship exhibited in The Ones We Leave Behind to the liminal journey in The Ghost of a Memory to the exploration of our place in our stories in This, At Least, Is My Story.
And of course a new short story of my own, where I could finally look at what happens long after Ceph leaves the Stop.
And so this month Silverstring Media released a brand new Second Edition of Azrael’s Stop, and today we release Tales of the Stop, a journey back to Azrael’s Stop, back to the time that Ceph spent there as barkeep, back to the stories we tell to each other about life and how to live.
It’s been a long journey and a tumultuous one, but I’m glad to have made it—and glad to be able to tell my own story of creating this project, that I can learn and grow and perhaps you can learn something too. Despite the troubles I had, from the faulty initial designs to the effort to reach out to new authors to the legal arrangements required and everything that goes into indie publishing, I never gave up on this little project. And however it may fare, I am extremely proud of it.
Lucas J.W. Johnson is a writer, game designer, producer, and entrepreneur. He founded the new media company Silverstring Media in 2011, where he’s written for award-winning games like Extrasolar and Crypt of the Necrodancer, and produced original projects like Glitchhikers, which was a finalist for Best Indie Game of 2014 at the Canadian Videogame Awards. He’s had several short stories published in anthologies and magazines, including “Subtle Poison” in Speaking Out!, and Remaker, Remaker and A Clockwork Heart, both for Fireside Magazine. He first created Azrael’s Stop in 2011, and much of his work can be found at silverstringmedia.com. He lives with his boyfriend in Vancouver, BC.
Azrael’s Stop and Tales of the Stop, along with the Azrael’s Stop Official Soundtrack, are all available now for digital download.