People I Admire

ACG Unabridged: Naomi Alderman

For this next installment of A Creator's Guide Unabridged, let me give you the bonus interview content from Naomi Alderman, an incredibly diverse and talented writer who has one foot in award-winning litfic and the other in critically acclaimed transmedia experiences and games like Perplex City, We Tell Stories, and the recent Zombies, Run! On a personal note, everything I know about how to make a living, breathing character with complex motivations I learned at Naomi's knee. I owe her so much, you guys.

Q: How did you get into transmedia?

I said the right thing at the right moment to a friend, basically. And I loved it from the start. Both of those things.

So, in terms of how I got into it in the sense of "how did I first get interested?" I think I was first interested in the thing I would call transmedia when I was maybe seven or eight years old. I went to an event for children run by children's publisher Puffin - there was an area where you could walk into a wardrobe and come out the other side into… well, Narnia obviously. Or at least in my memory into something a bit like Narnia. The illusion that I'd wandered into my favourite book didn't last long but that first amazing magical moment? I've been trying to recapture that for my whole life. The place where the story bleeds into the real world, that's the sweet spot for me. 

And then, how did I *get in* to transmedia? Another book I'd loved as a child: Masquerade, which was the first 'armchair treasure hunt' book and became quite a phenomenon in the UK in the early 1980s. There was a buried treasure somewhere in the UK, if you solved the puzzles in the book you could dig it up and keep it. I spent long hours staring at the book, never got anywhere with it and then didn't think about it for years.

And then, in one of those strokes of weirdness, I suddenly got really obsessed again around 2003. I bought books *about* Masquerade, I reread it and solved the puzzles again. I thought maybe I was incubating a novel about the whole Masquerade moment. I even changed my email sig (remember those?) to a quote from Masquerade. And then I emailed a friend to say 'when shall we have dinner?' and he replied 'omg. Do you like Masquerade? If so I know some people who are looking for a writer and will really want to talk to you.'

Those people were Adrian and Dan Hon and Michael Smith. The project was Perplex City. I worked on it for three and a half years and it changed my whole life. 

Q: Can you tell me a little about your favorite projects?

A: Hmmm! My guilty secret is that I have always been a puppetmaster, never a transmedia player, in the traditional sense. However, I am very inspired by a bunch of different things that touch on transmedia in various ways. For example: Like Water For Chocolate, a novel in which the recipes tell the story. Or games like Myst, which allowed the player to wander through a landscape, piecing together the story of what had happened for themselves. 

Q: How can you tell if your story isn't much good before you send it out into the world and it's too late?

A: Put it away for a while (at least a month, preferably two). Then read it back. Don't look at it with the eyes of wishful thinking. Be honest with yourself. 

Alternatively: find a friend who reads and watches a lot, and who can talk intelligently about why they do or don't like the movies or TV shows or books they consume. Give them your story and say the following words: "be firm, and honest". 

And your first story probably won't be much good. Just be calm and accept that fact. Maybe your first 20 won't. You'll get better. 


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ACG Unabridged: Jay Bushman

Last week I announced a new blog series in which I'll run material that was sadly cut from the final version of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. The first of these is the extra material from my interview with Jay Bushman. This is a fitting start because Jay has been particularly influential to me personally, on top of all of the great work he's done. Let's get this party started, shall we?

Q: How did you get into transmedia?

A: I’m still not sure I’m even in it. But seriously, I had played The Beast in 2001 and found it to be a revelatory experience. In the years after, I was living in Los Angeles and trying to make a living as a screenwriter. But the number of gatekeepers that seem only exist to keep you from making anything was maddening.

This was around the time that the musician Jonathan Coulton was becoming well known for his success with skipping record labels and releasing his music directly to the audience through the net, and when Cory Doctorow was making a big splash by releasing a novel online for free. And I wondered if you could do the same thing with a drama. So I started thinking about using the net and its various tools as the conduit to tell dramatic stories. 

Around this time, I saw a quote from the writer Warren Ellis that inspired me to take the leap. It was something like, “The hurdle to credible web publishing is now the nine dollars it costs to register a domain name mapped to a free Tumblr.” So I started writing things that were shaped to fit, not in a screenplay or stage play format, or in a short story format, but for blogs and Twitter and other free social networking systems. 

I spent a few years trying to come up with ways to describe what I was doing – “net- native fiction,” “ambient media,” “platform-agnostic storytelling” - but everything I came up with was clunky and confusing. Eventually, “transmedia” started making the rounds as a term that seemed to encompass “doing storytelling stuff on the Internet” and it seemed like this was the closest thing out there that fit what I was doing. 

Q: Can you tell me a little about your favorite projects? 

A: Obviously, The Beast. It’s the "Birth of a Nation" for transmedia, and it altered the course of my life.

 The Year Zero ARG – for me, this was the highest evolution of the “classical” ARG form, where the online world and the Nine Inch Nails CD it was supposedly marketing were virtually seamless. 

Shadow Unit - - a television show that never existed, with episodes in the form of short stories, character blogs, and hidden DVD extras. Brilliant writing, and proves that there’s always a way to tell your story, even if it’s not readily apparent. 

War of the Worlds 2.0 – this was an eye-opening experience for me, and started me down the path of using Twitter as a collaborative storytelling medium 

Of my own projects, I always enjoy #SXStarWars – especially the first one, where I assembled a cast of around 20 to perform a real-time re-enactment of the attack on the Death Star. The 2011 edition was also very gratifying – participants got to describe their experiences at a tech conference set in the Star Wars universe, and the players came up with some really amazing, hysterically funny contributions. 

Q: How do you get people to participate in your Twitter projects? 

A: I tend to announce my projects somewhat informally. I post about it on my twitter account, write a couple of blog posts, and ask people to spread the word. It’s not the most effective method, and it’s determinedly laid-back. But I don’t really design these projects to have a major footprint. Or maybe I just need a publicist or something. 

Q: How do you keep track of it all while it's running?

A: With a lot of difficulty. There are few good tools for archiving large volumes of tweets, especially if you’re not a corporation paying for an expensive service. Lately, I’ve been using tools like Storify and Keepstream, even though they’re not really built to handle long narratives. But every time I try something different, and I haven’t found the right thing yet.  

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Ten years ago, I was living a quiet, unremarkable life as a suburban IT professional. I had mousy hair and wore mousy colors and dreamt mousy little dreams. It was stable and secure and, truth be told, just a little bit boring. You probably already know that my life transformed into something strange and amazing when I played the Beast, our collective moment in Manchester. But change like that doesn't happen all at once; it happens in little drips and dribbles, until finally, one day, you take a leap of faith and realize as you fall that nothing is the way it was before.

For me, that moment was the day I bought an Apple computer.

To me, that white, shiny iBook represented my point of no return. Apple was even then the lingua franca of the creative world: artists, designers, writers. And so purchasing that computer represented a daring move, turning my key to a door I'd only just begun believing ever could open for me, really and for real.

It was a gamble, too, that Apple was on its way up -- and that I really would make it in the creative world; neither one an easy bet to make at the time. If I'd had to slink back to my career in IT, making IBM-centric document imaging systems for banks and bureaucracies, those few thousand dollars would have been wasted. We didn't really have a few thousand dollars to waste.

But why did Apple mean the creative life? Was it just the result of clever marketing? Oh, you could make a case for that, of course. That doesn't change the fact that buying that computer meant something very important to me. And I like to think their marketing was and is so resonant because it taps into a fundamental truth about what they do: They make technology into something beautiful. They make technology into something human.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. Thank you for giving me a fitting symbol for my deep breath and daring jump into this big, risk-taking, joyous life I live now. We'll never forget you.

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The Women of Transmedia

For a long while, I've been concerned about sexism in transmedia, and not just because of the brunette problem. Last year, in the same private discussion that the Transmedia Artists Guild sprang out of, I confessed that I felt like we women who create are generally considered the B-list. We do the work too, but don't get quite the same level of press or attention for it. It's a hard thing to talk about, though, because it's really easy to come off as sort of whiny about it, and nobody wants sort-of-whiny to be their professional face.

And then, yesterday, the StoryWorld conference announced their panel of advisors. And as easy as that, I'm finally moved to address this in a public venue.

It's a list I wouldn't disagree with on other grounds -- in fact, it's a pretty great list. There's certainly a lot of star power represented there. On the other hand... the teams I've been on have been pretty evenly split between men and women. There's no good reason there should be only two women and eleven men on that board. (And indeed, one of the two women, Alison Norrington, is on there by virtue of being the one organizing the conference.)

It might not matter so much; this is, after all, only one conference. But I've seen a number of similar lists in recent months, with a similar gender split, and it won't change if we don't talk about it.

If you're reading this blog at all, it's likely you agree that sexism is bad, mmkay? And I am absolutely not accusing StoryWorld (or anyone else!) of any sort of intentional setting-out-to-exclude-women. But here's the horrible, insidious thing: Sexism isn't always deliberate. And indeed, sometimes the people who have done something a little sexist would be horrified if they thought to look at it in that light.

Because we swim in a sexist society, men more easily fit into our mental category of "important thought leaders." Indeed, if you try to think up a bunch of "important people," I'd be shocked if you didn't come up with, say, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. I'd be very surprised indeed if your initial list included powerful women like Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton. Over time this kind of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- it's tremendously harder to become an important person if you don't fit the image. And there we have the perpetuation of sexism in one ugly, totally-not-on-purpose tangle.

Even me, who talks about sexism all the day long? I have to work really hard not to think that way. If you ask me to name the top people in transmedia, I'm going to start off with the same Mike Monello, Jeff Gomez, Henry Jenkins, Ivan Askwith, Elan Lee, Steve Peters, Adrian Hon as everyone else.

The only real remedy is to consciously combat that reflex. And so, for your and my future reference, I'm assembling a list here of smart and talented women in transmedia that you should consider inviting to speak at your event, interviewing in media as transmedia experts, or hiring for consulting work when you need it. Every one of them is or should be a rock star in our field.

Christy Dena - She made it onto the StoryWorld board, and good on her; she's earned it.

Jan Libby - A much-loved indie and commercial creator.

Nina Bargiel - A writer, responsible for Valemont, among other things.

Maureen McHugh - Super-awesome Hugo-award-winning writer, now at Fourth Wall.

Victoria Ha - Savvy businesswoman, producer and partner at Stitch Media.

Haley Moore - Incredibly talented design fiction artist and writer.

Dee Cook, Marie Lamb, Michelle Senderhauf - A seasoned group of creators who started the only woman-owned studio, Dog Tale Media.

Naomi Alderman - Award-winning literary novelist, and lead writer on Perplex City.

Brooke Thompson - A wonderful creator who also put together last year's wildly successful ARGfest.

Caitlin Burns - A producer on the Starlight Runner team, branching out to Jurassic Park Slope.

Sarah Szalavitz - Founder of 7 Robot, a social design agency.

Sara Thacher - A transmedia producer and artist in San Francisco.

Aina Abiodun - A multiplatform creator who founded the NYC Transmedia Meetup.

Krystyn Wells - A game designer and smart cookie who has worked with 42E and No Mimes.

This is a partial list, and I just know I'm going to be leaving off somebody I love and admire in the space. I may be editing to add a few; otherwise, if you're a woman working in transmedia, please comment and let us know you're out there.

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Creative Spotlight: Jim Gramze

One of the things I most admire about all of the creators I'm highlighting this week is their independent spirit --nobody here is asking permission or looking for validation first. They're just sitting down and doing the work. This is especially true for my next creative superstar, Jim Gramze

Jim is a performer turned composer, and I admire him fiercely because he is absolutely not afraid to take creative risks and put the result out there. The results are tracks in a range of styles, from movie-soundtrack classical (Black Cloud) to quirky mysterious (the misleadingly named Self-Indulgent Crap) to trance-infused prog-rock (Pink Amber.) 

And I probably described all of it completely wrong, because I am really not qualified to be categorizing anybody's experimental music. 

Just take my word that it's positively brimming with awesome and go on over to his MySpace page to take a listen. It's like a candy sampler, except with music. I bet it'll inspire you, too!

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