Transmedia writer Joe Velikovsky is often writing a feature film script, a game, a novel, and a graphic novel all at once. Among his achievements are The Feature Screenwriters Workbook (available free online), the comic strip Dr N Sayne (illustrated by Deane Taylor) and the novel A Meaningless Sequence of Arbitrary Symbols. He lives in New South Wales and works as a Transmedia Consultant and as a Script Assessor for the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG). He writes a blog at http://on-writering.blogspot.com/.
Tell me about your involvement in the National Young Writers’ Festival.
Smack-bang out-of-the-blue, I received an email asking me to appear on two panels at the Festival this year : ‘Games Writing’ and ‘Transmedia: The Business Behind the Buzzword’. I was thrilled to accept. It was exciting timing for me because I’d recently finished writing a big videogame and a comic, and the feature film Caught Inside, for which I was the screenwriter, opened in Aussie cinemas the week after the Festival.
The Festival is brilliant for Writers of all ages and it was nice to get back to Newcastle in New South Wales, where I lived for five years when I was studying for a BA in Communications (Screenwriting major) at the University of Newcastle. I’m deeply fond of Novocastria: it was there that I started my professional writing career, working in comedy theatre with Footlice Theatre Co, as a TV sketch-comedy writer and making films at uni.
How involved is the task of game writing? How did you land that gig?
Game writing is truly, madly, deeply involved! It’s not just a case of ‘making up a story to fit the game’, though that’s certainly part of it. As a writer, you need to consult regularly with the game designer and the game level designers, producers and artists, programmers and sound guys, to make sure that the game story and the dialogue all still ‘works’. Half of what you’re doing changes every day as the game evolves while it’s being made over two or three years. The writing and rewriting during the game production process can be ultra-intense. I think it’s actually about three times as much writing as on a feature film (even when a film script goes through several drafts).
It’s also a totally different way of thinking about narrative. Feature films and novels are (generally speaking) linear narratives, but with non-linear stories you need to design the many parts of the story (and lines of dialogue) to work effectively even if they are experienced in different combinations and orders.
The Looney Tunes: Acme Arsenal game I wrote had only 1,060 lines of dialogue (in an Excel spreadsheet), but there’s much more writing involved than simply the dialogue: there were outlines, character design briefs and 70-page illustrated treatments for each of the ten levels (‘chapters’) in the game.
I landed my first gig writing games the day I finished the Game Writing and Design short course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Someone rang the school that day looking for a game writer and my name was put forward. In truth, I’d been making my own computer games since I was seven years old. What an über-nerd.
What’s the biggest challenge you have faced as a transmedia writer?
It was challenging working on a game project where we were adapting a movie I thought was just plain dumb. It was hard to take the game and its story seriously when the film story ‘didn’t deserve no respect’. Another challenge is when several producers all want to pull the project in a different direction. That drives you nuts, but when collaboration really works (with a great blend of creatives all working in sync), it’s the greatest rush.
Your most memorable moment?
My most memorable moment was when I was working on a project with Robert Watts, the producer of the first three Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. I wrote a screenplay that Robert had optioned and, while we were working on the film, the game and a comic all at once, in the middle of it all we met with George Lucas, who was one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer-director-producer in the first place. Robert put on 2001: A Space Odyssey and was telling us about working with Kubrick (one of my other film heroes).
Then, to cap it off, Robert completely blew all our minds by telling us his idea for a new form of non-linear cinema storytelling: the audience watches a 10-minute introductory film about five main characters, the movie stops and the lights come up, and then the film branches off into five different films in five different cinemas, each film within the one over-arching story.
Having seen one film, there are four other films you have to see to get the whole story, and of course there are multiple twists, so that characters that you assumed were ‘good guys’ based on one point of view actually turn out to be villains once you’ve seen what they were up when they were ‘offscreen’ in the other story streams. It’s a brilliant way to tell a story and is exactly what transmedia storytelling is, except that with conventional transmedia the idea is split across three or more different media formats (a film, a game, a comic).
I also loved working with Marv Wolfman, the creator of Blade. He published Stephen King’s first short story and was THE guy who first got comic writers a credit, back in the 1950s: he signed ‘by the Wolf Man’ under the title of a horror comic story and suddenly every other comic writer insisted on a writer’s credit. He taught me so much about storytelling.
What are your tips for writers who want to be published?
If you want to be a published novelist, I recommend you read Elizabeth Paton’s thesis Creativity and the Dynamic System of Australian Fiction Writing, which is available free online and include interviews with 40 Australian published fiction writers. The thesis even delves into ‘What is Creativity, and How Do I Do It?’, which is something that a lot of writers don’t study enough, in my opinion.
My other big tip is: submit, submit, submit, and just work through the rejections! Use any advice you get from publishers, but know which advice to ignore as well, if someone simply doesn’t ‘get’ your work. For writers who feel they’re merely ‘running on the rejection treadmill’, I highly recommend the book Rotten Rejections: The Letters Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent, which is a hilarious and very encouraging collection of rejection letters. All successful writers were rejects once.
Is there a large community of transmedia writers (in Australia)?
Funnily enough, no, I don’t believe there is a large community. Or if there is, we should all join forces and fight crime together.
Did you plan to build up such diverse experience in media?
No way! I started my bachelor degree trying to get into advertising as a copywriter (all my favourite authors, like Joseph Heller and Don deLillo and Flann O’Brien, seemed to work in advertising before they cracked novel-writing)! Then I did Horror Film Studies and I made a bunch of films and I was hooked.
I can’t resist telling stories across as many media as possible and I have always been that way. They do always say you should write what you know and so, somehow, with my novel A Meaningless Sequence of Arbitrary Symbols, I found myself writing a transmedia story about a transmedia writer!
Do you have a favourite medium?
Yes! Feature films, without a doubt, have always been my ‘first love’. Though I do love the freedom of novels because the budget of any given genre, scene or story is totally irrelevant.
Games are loads of fun to write but the downside is that they’re simply not as narratively satisfying for a writer. I think the main reason for this is that, as Henry Jenkins says, ‘Player freedom annihilates Character’. It’s the old ‘agency versus structure’ (freedom versus constraints) problem. Besides which, games are also usually so damned expensive to make! In my experience, the more expensive the art form or medium, the less interesting it becomes; the product always becomes ‘safer’ as the budgets go further north.
Do you think your experiences as a Game Design/Writing Mentor for the Australia Council and as a script assessor for the AWG have contributed to your ongoing development as a writer?
Absolutely. This is mainly because mentoring is teaching, and you learn the most by teaching something: when you’re passing on skills and techniques you’re constantly comparing those techniques to other possible approaches (for example, different ways to reveal a character). Working as a script assessor (not just for the AWG, but for film studios as well) is fantastic experience for any writer. Having to read and think critically about all aspects of hundreds of scripts makes you consider all those same issues in your own work. It’s just invaluable.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Joe Velikovsky’ in The Australian Writer issue 374 (December 2011–February 2012).