The Role of Producer

Recently published over at WQ, a piece I wrote on the unique role of the producer in creating a reading experience for the screen.

For the last few months I’ve been working with a small tech start-up company with big ideas. Called oolipo—a nod to the oulipo movement that pioneered experimental constrained writing techniques—this company is taking the nineteenth century idea of serialised storytelling and bringing it to a contemporary audience via that most twenty-first century device, the smartphone. Stories for oolipo aren’t just existing narratives repackaged for a handheld screen, they are stories written specifically with the device in mind.

One of the stories I am working on is called Valhalla. It’s a very modern take on Norse mythology, combining fantasy, history, humour, and a whole lot of arse kicking.

I’m not the writer of Valhalla; I’m the producer. This is a new kind of role, somewhat akin to an editor, but expanded into taking a text and translating it into something a designer and engineer can work with in producing a work unique to reading on a phone.

Just think about the reading experience on a phone. Forget any other device. Just concentrate on the phone. What can you do? You can combine text and images. Animation and video is a possibility, as are sounds that complement the story. But that’s just the beginning. Phones have GPS and accelerometers. A phone knows where you are on the surface of the earth, your coordinates on the map and even your altitude. Most importantly, a phone is networked. It has a live connection to servers and other devices proliferated throughout the planet. It is not simply a passive device for consuming content; it can help create and share.

That’s a lot of additional tools available. So how does a story for such a container come together? As a writer, you may be tempted to turn your story into a multimedia assault. Or maybe you fall into another camp that sees nothing wrong with sticking to long, elegant blocks of text. A story for the phone might work at either of these extremes, but more likely you’ll want to navigate a path somewhere between larding up the narrative with distractions or creating an impenetrable wall of text that brings nothing to the reading experience beyond what ink and paper does.

This is where the producer comes in. Use the possibilities of the platform, imagine how the features of the device can bring something unique to the story. And at the same time never lose sight of the reading experience. The producer’s job, like the editor’s, has much to do with balance and restraint. The writers of Valhalla have built their story around a narrative voice that relies on short but evocative strings of text. When released, Valhalla will combine this voice with background textures, black and white illustration and the subtle use of animation, sound loops and three-dimensional parallax effects into a kind of ‘hand-made, high-tech’ aesthetic.

For much of this year, I’ve been grappling with the question of what skills and capabilities writers will need in the future. We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain. The choice of medium must always serve the story. And the reading experience must always serve to take a reader deeper into the story world. All the cool ‘features’ in the world will add nothing to a story if they’re not relevant. And all the beautiful prose in the world will never reach a reader if it’s frustrating to access. More than anything, what writers will need is not that different to what writers have always needed: an understanding and appreciation of how their stories are experienced.

We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain.

In the meantime, I need to get on with turning Valhalla into a database-readable spreadsheet. Yes, being a producer has its glamourous moments too. ♦ 

But how do they find a story?

I visited Atlanta earlier this year and took the opportunity to do a tour of the CNN studio, because why the hell not. As part of the tour, our group walked along an elevated gantry where we could see the working newsroom below. It's an impressive space with enough workstations for maybe a couple of hundreds of journalists at a time. Although it wasn't particularly busy that day (slow news day maybe), there was still a buzz about the place, a sense of just how frenetic it must get when shit really goes down.

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On seeing the floor, an older lady asked the tour guide a question: 'So how do they actually find stories?'

The guide kind of waffled something about how stories are selected for inclusion on air, but it clearly didn't satisfy her.

'But how do they actually find a story in the first place?' she asked her husband as the tour guide moved us along to the next gawking opportunity.

'I don't know,' he replied. 'They must use Twitter and Facebook.'

I'm not a journalist (despite more than once being introduced in public as one), but I have a professional interest in how journalism and news works. Of course social media has become an essential tool for journalists and has had a profound influence not just on how we get our news, but what the content of that news is (sometimes to its detriment). But it is still one tool of many in getting to the truth of a story.

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So the conversation I overheard at CNN has stayed with me.

And I've continued to be struck by the thought that this older couple couldn't conceive of 'journalism' without social media.

I wonder if the way we consume news is beginning to affect our perception of how it's made, that – thanks to apps like Twitter, Facebook, Periscope and the like – we assume that the devices used for consuming content are the same as the devices made for creating it.

I don't know what this might mean, but as I think and plan and imagine where we're going with 'the book', it's a thought that refuses to go away.

In any case, the next time someone asks:

'Where do you get your ideas?'

I think I'll respond:

'Twitter and Facebook.'

Where the Book Went Next

This week I participated in a great panel discussion with Charlotte Harper (published of The N00bz) and book designer Zoe Sadokierski called Where the Book Went Next at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Audience member. Kenji Walter, summarised the session in sketch form (this must be a thing) and our talks were recorded. You know, for posterity.

So, one thing I've learned is that shaving has no apparent effect on my appearance.

Memory Makes Us at Books in Browsers

A few days ago, I was invited to talk at the Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco.

Produced and sponsored by the New York Public Library and the Frankfurt Book Fair, Books in Browsers is a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.

My talk was about the if:book project I've been running all this year called Memory Makes Us

Memory Makes Us creates an interface between writers and readers and blurs the boundaries of each throughout the creative process. The project gathers a group of authors to write live in a public space using as their inspiration memories contributed by the audience to a theme chosen by the authors.

This presentation explores the project in detail and challenges assumptions about the book’s place within a wider body of text, the nature of collaborative writing, and the permanence of physical and digital media.

Memory Makes Us takes place simultaneously online and in a physical space. Online, readers contribute memories via a dedicated project web site or using a social media hashtag. The authors write to a publicly accessible document embedded in the project site. The live event sees the authors working in an open location within a literary festival. The audience records their memories using typewriters and notepads, hand-delivering them to the authors at work. However, the complete body of work in Memory Makes Us is the web site where writers’ and readers’ contributions are of equal significance.

Standard online collaborative writing tools define access by editing rights. Instead this project creates a role for readers as influencers and inspiration, while recognising and honouring a singular author’s vision.

All work produced for Memory Makes Us, both physical and digital, is ephemeral, with a deliberately limited lifespan. The project’s legacy will rely on the memories of its participants and readers.