Creative Voice: Andrea Phillips

So I have to admit I kind of have a creator's crush on Andrea Phillips. Transmedia writer and game designer extraordinaire, Andrea has worked on projects ranging from Perplex City to America 2049 to the Maester's Path to Floating City. She's currently working on an independant project called Balance of Powers with David Varela, Adrian Hon, and Naomi Alderman, and she has written a book called A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, which will be released next year. I've read the book and it's awesome. What I love about Andrea is that she's an independant; she's making it happen without a big agency behind her or millions of dollars in capital. She's also a total sweetheart.

What excites you most about transmedia storytelling?

I really love the performative aspect -- the way you can play along with your audience and adapt the story to maximize its impact. I also love how this sort of storytelling seems to encourage the formation of communities, even for fairly small works of fiction.

Here's why: When you write something like a flat novel, you don't really see how the reader is reacting to every twist of the plot. At best, you get a few reviews written after the fact, which is of course too late to do anything about it. But when you get constant feedback as you go, suddenly you can fine-tune your story as you go to play to what's working and cut what isn't.

Even beyond that, though, simply having a community reading your work and talking to each other about it is incredibly addicting. A lot of writers (most writers?) are writing for the attention, myself included. Having an audience paying such close attention to your work, and being able to see them in the act, is intensely gratifying.

You’re working on a book on writing for transmedia. What can we expect from that?

The book is an attempt to distill the most important things I've learned about structure, writing, and production over the last few years into one helpful guide. It talks everything from how to decide what platforms to use to how much you should charge as a freelancer. I've also done Q&As with some fellow creators who have been influential to me.

I'm really hoping that it spurs a wider conversation about craft -- how to use these amazing tools we have to tell better and richer and deeper stories. I feel like a lot of the conversation around transmedia so far is about what it is and what it's good for, but there's not enough talk about how to do it. (A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, from McGraw-Hill! Look for it in June of 2012!)

You’re also working on a project with past co-conspirators on a story project called Balance of Powers, after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Why did you choose to go with Kickstarter, and what are you most excited about with this project?

We went with Kickstarter because it's fast and simple, and because it lets you build a connection with your audience from the get-go. Between the four of us, we have a fair few fans of our work. Just announcing something on Kickstarter and saying "Hey, we want to make a thing, can you help us to make it a reality?" winds up exciting the people who we want to be excited. And it lets our audience feel a sense of ownership over the project, too.

We could have spent a couple of years chasing VCs and trying to build a company, or pitching a concept to various clients or publishers or film studios or arts funding bodies... but that would have been a lot of time spent on something that wasn't doing the work. Worse, those investors or commissioners, then, would have felt that ownership of the story instead of the audience, and we would have become obligated to alter the story to suit the people with the money. I think it's much, much better to be beholden to your audience.

What drives you, as a storyteller?

Fear, mostly.

No, seriously -- fear is my motivating factor in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, I'm petrified that the work I do isn't enough. Not good enough for anyone to care about it. Not a sufficient quantity of work for anyone to notice. Or that I simply don't have anything important to say. It's very easy to be afraid of taking big risks, particularly big creative risks. And so it's very easy to just... not do it.

But on the other hand, you can't let fear choose what you do. If you let fear win, you live a small, safe life, and you do very boring creative work. That's not what I want. I want a big life, doing big things -- or at least trying to, even if it's not the safe thing, even if I fail a thousand times over. That's a recurring theme in my life: Working out what it is I'm afraid of, and then doing it anyway.

I remember you saying at one point on twitter that you write “because entertainment helps shape culture, and I want a hand in making the world we live in.” What do you want your creations to accomplish?

Heavens, this is a fascinating topic, I think I want to write another whole book on just this. If you start to look at neuroscience -- read the literature on priming, on mirror neurons -- you find that the images and narratives we're exposed to every day have a huge influence on how we think about ourselves and the world. Think about how rates of smoking are influenced by how prevalent smoking is in film; or Jeff Gomez's brilliant example, Simplemente Maria, a telenovela that inspired a generation of domestic workers in South and Central America to go to night school and improve their lives.

Stories are the things a society is telling itself are true: Love conquers all, crime doesn't pay, that kind of thing. But there are a lot of awful messages floating around that I'd like to counteract by telling stories about them. If we tell the right stories, we can convey that being gay should be as unremarkable as having curly hair, that someone in poverty is probably working twice as hard as someone who makes twice as much money, that girls have value beyond how hot they look in tight clothes.

If we want to live in a society where these things are recognized as being true, we have to start by telling ourselves stories in which they are true.

Rather than ask what your favourite project was to work on, what do you look for that makes a project great to work on?

A great team. It doesn't matter how much money I'm making, whether it's original IP or client work, whether it's a serious game or a marketing campaign. The thing that makes the biggest difference is who my collaborators are and whether I feel like I'm on the same page as they are.

There's something really special about a great collaboration that makes the work exponentially better, too -- it's not just that the process is more fun (though it is). I'd take being second fiddle on an amazing team to being the head honcho on an ill-fitting one any day of the week.

What do you look for that makes a project great to experience, as an audience member?

I've become kind of cranky about this over the years. First off, the story itself needs to be solid. That means it has to be fairly easy to work out what the story is and who or what it's about; if I can't identify any sort of driving conflict from the get-go, the clock is ticking on my interest.

And then the story has to be told in an accessible way. A number of ARGs or other transmedia experiences are impenetrable from the get-go. There's a mysterious trailhead that you have to decipher just to work out where to look and what the story will be about.

There was a time when I had the time and patience for that, but I just don't now. I'm by far not the only one. Just tell me where to look, you know? And give me a helpful meta site to look at to catch up when I lose a week to travel or family obligations but still want to follow the story. Make it so easy that you don't lose me just because I'm tired or busy.

What would be your advice for an indie creator?

My biggest piece of advice is to just start making stuff. If you're not working and experimenting, then you're not actively learning how to get better. It doesn't matter what your budget is, or even whether you have a team. Make a story with the skills you have. If you need skills you don't have, learn them. When you're done, look carefully at where your project succeeded and where it failed, and then try to do your next thing a little better.

Creation is all about persistently doing. Everything else pales in comparison.

Where do you want the transmedia storytelling industry to go? What would you like to see happen in this community?

I want to see more and bigger efforts at self-sustaining projects. We have a history of scoffing at models where the audience pays money for the privilege of being in your world, but I think it's the logical next step. Even if you don't charge a subscription fee for online content, for example, you can monetize individual pieces of a transmedia story. Sell paper subscriptions to the in-world newspaper, or copies of a character's diary or photo album. Merchandise with t-shirts, mugs, hats, pins, plushies -- a fair few webcomic artists make a pretty good living that way. Make a mobile app and sell that.

The kinds of stories we tell are going to be limited so long as we stick to the client/marketing model, or even the TV/commissioning model. I don't think we'll come into our own as an art form until we stand on our own feet. When that happens, though... then we'll really blossom. I can't wait to see it happen.

And finally, who's your favourite other creator working in this space doing cool stuff?

My favorite other creator? Hmmm.

I don't think I could pick just one person, or just one project. There are so many talented people out there doing amazing stuff, and I'm sure I only hear about a small fraction of it. The projects I'm most excited about, though, are the ones from indie creators taking those big, risky leaps of faith -- Christy Dena, Lance Weiler, Yomi Ayeni, Aina Abiodun, Jim Babb, and I'm sure a dozen more I'm forgetting right this second. It almost doesn't matter what the project is or how it's structured, it's the fact that they're all trying to do something new that completely blows me away.