Avast, ye scum-swaddlin’ sea-dogs! Listen up! I’m geeked by creators who are doing it their own way — a storyteller like Andrea Phillips does it her way, every time. She worked on the Game of Thrones transmedia campaign and is also the author behind A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. She also makes HELLA WEIRD fudge. Spicy fudge. Curry fudge. Tasty fudge. She’s here to talk about her episodic narrative, The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart!
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I’m Andrea Phillips! I’m a game designer and (of course) a writer. For my day job, I get to write stuff like The Walk with Six to Start and Naomi Alderman and make professional Game of Thrones puzzles and fanfic (uh, sort of.)
I also have a book out called A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling that’s all about how to use multiple media platforms and interaction to tell great stories.
But that’s not why we’re here today! We’re here to talk about The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart. (Whose first part you can totally sample for free, right now.)
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH:
Carnivorous mermaids! Socialist lizard-people! Vast quantities of chocolate! Lucy Smokeheart is a serial pirate adventure and treasure hunt.
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
Early in 2013, I was long on time and short on cash, so I started dreaming up a fun project to fill my hours and maybe line my pockets. Maybe something I could do on Kickstarter. Story of the month club? Hard sell. Maybe if it was a unified theme? Maybe… a serial story of some kind? One chapter a month?
But if I was going to use Kickstarter, it had to be something with a fast hook – something the citizens of the internet agree is unequivocally awesome. So I sat down and wrote a list titled Things That Are Awesome. That list included video games, puzzles, ninjas, anything over-the-top, cats and dogs, love stories, HP Lovecraft… and of course pirates.
As soon as I thought of pirates, Lucy and her world sprang into my head fully-formed. It all came together pretty fast after that. I collected $7700 on Kickstarter, launched the ebook-only series in April, and we’ve been sailing onward ever since.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
This story is deeply infused with the essence of everything important to me. I’m a loud-mouthed activist, so I wanted to try to subvert some of the entrenched colonialism, racism, and sexism in pirate tropes.
This idealism sounds boring and joyless, but it’s behind some of my most favorite elements in the whole story! The super-racist classic voodoo witch doctor is transformed into a Swedish sorcerer, instead. (I figured Sweden was the nation the least commonly associated with dark magic.) My lizard-people, instead of being sub-human savages, are enlightened socialists very much concerned with socioeconomic justice.
And of course coming from me, people do expect something-something-transmedia. I needed a way for readers to spend more time with Lucy’s world. So each monthly episode includes a puzzle (fair warning: many of them are extremely difficult). If you enter the correct solution at the Lucy website, you get a piece of a captain’s log kept by Lucy’s brother.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING THE DARING ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN LUCY SMOKEHEART?
Keeping the tone even has been extraordinarily difficult. It’s meant to be a light, fun romp. But at the same time I want to create tension and conflict. I want to provoke strong feelings. It’s really hard to be funny and moving at the same time, it turns out.
It’s also really hard to write light and funny when you’re running past a deadline – and Lucy episodes are meant to be roughly monthly, but in practice they tend to be about five to six weeks apart. You don’t want to deliver a bad episode under the gun, but it’s hard to sound playful when you’re filled with guilt and self-loathing. Go figure.
The result is a mosaic where sometimes it’s light, sometimes it’s darker; sometimes it’s over-the-top cartoon funny, and sometimes it’s more serious and realistic. Whether this is pleasant variety or uneven and unprofessional… I’ll leave that decision to the readers.
There’s a similar problem with pacing for a serial – you have to tell a whole story in each episode but also carry forward an overarching plot every time. It’s a tricksy business, writing a serial! Or just writing.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING LUCY SMOKEHEART?
I’ve learned that it’s totally OK not to be too precious about word choice and elegant phrasing. Consider me a convert to the Dan Brown school of workmanlike prose.
Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some finely crafted prose. But since this is an exercise in gonzo storytelling and not Haute Literature, I made peace early with using simple language. I’m not casting about for ‘the corners of her mouth twitched up a hair’s breadth’ when ‘she smiled’ does the trick and I can move on with the story.
I’ve also learned that in the self-publishing arena, inertia is a big deal, and an inconsistent publishing schedule is a terrible strategy. I’m a big believer in transparency, so this whole time I’ve been sharing my budget and sales numbers, which by and large aren’t particularly impressive (well, excluding the Kickstarter backers, anyway!) The one month I missed putting out an episode, September, was also the month I had the fewest sales, by far.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT LUCY SMOKEHEART?
The joy of it! If I was going to commit to working on one thing for a whole year, I wanted it to be something fun to write (and read, one hopes).
I’m really exhausted from how dark-gritty-realistic has become our dominant narrative aesthetic. I didn’t want to spend a year in that mental space. I wanted to write something harking back to the days of Xena Warrior Princess, instead. Something that isn’t trying to be the pirate equivalent of Breaking Bad or The Wire. There’s a value in levity, too.
The result is that I can get away with writing the most implausible or ridiculous things I can think of, simply because I think they’re fun to put into the story. Giant snowball fights, the Royal German Marinological Society, monkey spiders (not spider monkeys!)
The luxury of not trying to do something serious, not trying to be important or say something meaningful… I can’t tell you how good that feels. I mean it feels good, is what I’m saying. But not in an inappropriate way.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
I wish I’d been just a tiny bit less gonzo when I started. Right now, the process of edits, revising, formatting, etc. all happens within the space of three days, tops. It’s the pace I’m accustomed to; when you do a lot of live interactive work, sometimes the time between finishing a draft and seeing it go live is counted in minutes.
But I always feel under the gun to stick to my delivery schedule. If I’d been wiser and more patient, I’d have held off on releasing the first episode before I had another couple completed, so I’d have a little bit of wiggle room built in.
Deadlines, man. Deadlines.
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
This is SO HARD! Here’s a bit from the second episode, in which Lucy is in a diving bell:
Lucy had made this journey before, but familiarity didn’t do much against the feeling that the small amount of air in the bell was pressing into her ears and lungs. With every exhale, the air felt warmer and wetter, like she had somehow been transported to the inside of her own mouth. She began to regret eating sardines for breakfast.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
Bunches and bunches! I’m working on a spec for a game that takes place in the Lucy Smokeheart world, and with luck that’ll be out in mid to late 2014.
I have a book about The Wiki Where Your Edits Come True that I really want to get in front of readers, plus there’s a YA project about luck that I have impossibly grand ambitions for. So many projects!
I’ve parted ways with my agent this year, so I’m on the lookout for new representation. I’d prefer to work with a traditional publisher for some of my upcoming projects, but if that isn’t progressing to my liking by summertime, I’m all about exploring other options.
I, uh, I better get cracking on all that, shouldn’t I? …Gotta go. Thanks for letting me stop by!