Spree was written in an integrated fashion with the settings explored in What3Words on a computer via Google Street View while I drafted it. Both the creation and the delivery of the story is rooted in digital exploration.
In other words, I had an idea, found pictures and used them as inspiration. Then I set the words and the pictures together so the reader had a rich experience of the world of the story. But online.
This was a Lockdown story: I wanted a setting which was as forbidden on some levels under normal circumstances as so many familiar places had become. For me, this meant setting it somewhere I couldn’t go – abroad – and shouldn’t go: an abandoned theme park. But because I wanted to explore it visually, it had to be somewhere that was represented in some way on What3words as a rich environment to explore. Spreepark was a space I was slightly familiar with, having been to an event there some years before, which meant I also had some photographs from a friend I could use to refer to and help build the story in a way that added to what was already available online to a reader via a quick internet search.
The character of the narrator came out of the setting: I thought about who would be going there and why they shouldn’t and she just put her hand up. I went into the story with certain expectations of how it might play out, then I began exploring the visuals actually available via Google Street View. There was a strong disconnect between the time of day and the isolation I’d begun to imagine for my narrator. It felt odd to invite a reader to explore the setting in a way that didn’t relate to what they were seeing, so I went with the flow and brought the narrator on a walk through the Spreepark that was represented online.
I used the restrictions of the digital space as the jumps in my story: the sections cut when she moves in a way that can’t be replicated seamlessly online through What3Words/Streetview. This gave a sense of purpose to using the different map locations. It also helped me not get too bogged down on a literal map route – although one single block of narrative/piece of audio that followed a set route would have been an option.
An early plan was to make the transitions in the story like a treasure hunt, with the reader having to answer questions based on visual clues within the setting to find the three words for the next location. As soon as I started building it as a Proof of Concept online this went out the window. It no longer made sense with the story itself, which was the main thing. I was unsure at that stage if I’d be able to embed the maps next to the text, and it felt like I was asking the reader to do unnecessary work. Also, I discovered that this meant my reader wasn’t free to explore the space and enjoy getting lost: they’d only be able to keep going with the story if they followed a rigid, set route through the visuals. This would mean my story would have to become a set of instructions, and that felt boring to me as a writer and overly literal as a reader.
Opening this up then gave me the option to explore multiple settings. I chose not to make it a multiple narrative strand story: on a practical basis, I didn’t have time to edit something of that size to a quality I would be happy with. So instead, thanks to feedback from my editorial group, I opened up multiple settings so the reader could chose to explore a setting that acted as a metaphor to the narrator’s feelings for that section.
The three words associated with the starting point for each location are woven into that section of the story: where there is a choice of two settings, there are six words hidden in that narrative. I did this as a partial retro-fit: I have a habit of sticking a lot of red herrings and overly subtle illusions into my ‘designed for the page’ short fiction, so I knew that I would be too distracted by the individual words if I used them as starting points for the story from the off set, and I’d likely write myself into corners. Instead narrowed down the exact starting points originally because they were sets of words that resonated with the themes of the story. Then once I had a final draft of the whole story together I went through and tweaked phrases to slot the words in.
My time writing Spree was funded by a small grant from Nesta, a UK-based innovation foundation.
The original project involved bringing people together outdoors to touch things in boxes and create different types of stories. It was selected by a panel as part of their Alternarratives R&D strand in early 2020 and then Lockdown happened: I kept going with it for several weeks (I still love the idea and hope to make it happen in a different future) then once I’d fully processed the likely timescales of Covid-19 social distancing measures had to concede that my project had become socially irresponsible. I needed to come up with an alternative project that kept hold of some of that sense of exploration of real spaces, personal agency and creativity that had made Project A so fun for me.
Having the grant meant I could take time from my other freelance writing to work on the project: it bought me some focus. Being selected to be part of a cohort was a confidence boost. It also meant I had a budget to pay for the things I needed to prototype and finesse the project: I was able to pay a small fee to a voice-artist and composer, and to make a last-minute update to my WordPress plan to allow the dream of the embedded maps to happen. Being part of Alternarratives meant I had a support structure to draw on: as well as support from the Alternarratives Team at Nesta to talk through and sense-check plans and a series of workshops with unique voices in the world of digital literature, we were resourced with a one-on-one with a project mentor of our choice (in my case YA writer Lucy Christopher) and then towards the end of the project they also gave us one-on-one support from a tech mentor (Pete Bennett, thanks to whom the embedded maps were able to happen).
The need to make a drastic adjustment meant I wasn’t as well resourced in time for Spree as I would have liked, having spent the majority of my preparatory time on a completely different project (sob). I didn’t have time to test with my target-age readership in the ways I would normally expect for a project of this type, although the testing I did with other readers was invaluable to developing a tighter, better story. I didn’t have time to explore multiple versions, although positive feedback gave me the confidence to be bold in some of my creative choices for this version. I didn’t have a budget that allowed me to hire a director as well as a voice-artist, but I was lucky that both Molly (voice) and Dave (music) were able to work to a tight deadline with very short notice. My biggest regret is not having time to look for a solution to make the exploring maps work on smartphones, within my existing budget. If I had a million-dollar budget, I’d look at some fancy studio soundscaping work and make the whole thing a novel-length multi-strand monstrosity.
I’m used to childcare supporting my writing time: that was a serious issue as my partner and I struggled to meet our different working commitments alongside caring for a toddler and moving house. I was sad that the restrictions of Lockdown meant I wasn’t able to meet the rest of the Alternarratives cohort in person, as originally planned pre-pandemic, or to work with the Young Persons Panel originally attached to the project.
During Lockdown I’ve struggled for the focus to read, but having this and another commission to work on has been a huge boost in keeping my writing active and lively. I find it interesting that both Spree and my other commission have ended up being what could loosely be categorised as ‘body-horror’ pieces. Perhaps this is due to the emphasis on physical symptoms in the news, or a heightened sense of the importance of physicality in The Age of Zoom. I can, however, say with confidence that if I wasn’t being paid to write the project, it would have fallen by the wayside under the stress of the other pressures. There’s something to hook onto about being beholden to other people: a sense that your writing is wanted somewhere in a way that isn’t speculative.
I have an iPhone, so I downloaded the free version of the TapMedia voice recorder app to do Proof of Concept audio recordings of myself reading drafts of the story sections as I wrote them. Whenever I significantly updated that section of text, I re-recorded and uploaded.
These draft audio recordings gave me a sense of how long each section would be to listen to, and it meant I could show my tech & editing help the overall effect I was aiming towards. Reading my work out loud was also a helpful instant-edits stage as it highlighted sentences that were too long, repetitions, typos and things that just didn’t quite work. Generally, if I instinctually went to say a different word instead of what was written down I knew that phrase wasn’t right as an audio piece: something that looks great on paper doesn’t always land as well in the ear.
I built up these audio drafts as I was refining the way the story would be presented online, and as I wrote towards the end of the story. I made my partner sit and read through a very early prototype and the way they navigated the relationship between the map and the story was the exact opposite of what I’d expected. This freed me up from being too literal about the spaces I was exploring with the map, and re-emphasised the importance of writing the story to be heard rather than read: not too dense, cut out the deadwood. My editorial group read/listened/watched the draft of the first half and helped me clarify the plot. As always, it was a massive help to hear from them what worked as well as what didn’t: it encouraged me to trust my instincts and stopped me cutting something that
My voice-artist, Molly Roberts, had access to suitable recording equipment at her lockdown residence. I emailed her the draft version of Spree on the website to give her a flavour of the project, then sent her a final version of the story as a script, complete with setting & character background notes. Once she’d had a chance to do some prep, she Whatsapped me a voice note for the character to check she’d nailed what I was after. She recorded the audio in sections, doing multiple versions in some cases to give me a choice of tone, and she sent them across to me in both .wav and .mp3 formats using WeTransfer.
My composer, Dave Smith, also has a home studio he was able to use during Lockdown. He emailed me an initial list of questions to work out what I was looking for in the piece in terms of tone and to pin down technical details (length, format, preferred instruments). Then he did some of his own research, cooked up a bit of magic and emailed across a first draft (.mp3). We had a dialogue by email about what I wanted kept in the next edit and what I wanted changed. At the end of the process he sent the final version as .wav, .mp3 and .m4a.
I bought a couple of sound effects from Soundsnap (via a download bundle rather than a subscription) to give a touch of ambience. The experience gave me a new level of appreciation for Foley artists and their ilk.
I edited the audio using Audacity (free to download), using the .wav versions of the music & voice recordings. I used to use Audacity quite regularly for projects about a decade ago and had a minor panic when I started working on it for Spree and found couldn’t remember how to do basic things. So I relied heavily on their manual to bring me back up to speed.
Originally I thought I needed the written text of the story to be the centrepiece of it. I didn’t want to reader to have to load up two separate websites and switch between them. I thought I found an easy fix with Google Tour, but unfortunately What3Words wasn’t integrated with Google Tour so that was a dead end.
At a cohort workshop day for Alternarratives, I discovered that it was okay to have an audio story as the heart of the project – which opened up my options considerably. We were also given a tech mentor to help us through our problems. My back-up plan if the embedded maps weren’t possible was to have the audio story as a podcast, which you could listen to while exploring the settings via What3Words in a browser. Pete Bennett talked me through my various tech woes and wrote the code for the maps. I ran into some issues in getting it to work on my WordPress site until I discovered that I needed to be signed up on the Business Plan to unlock the ability to embed external websites like this. Which, thanks to the grant from Nesta, I was able to do. I also needed to install the Classic Editor plugin, and to do some dancing between different approaches until the (Classic Editor) map embeds sat happily alongside the (Block Editor) audio, text, photos and buttons.
At an early stage, I considered some fancy options involving quiz questions to release passwords, time-sensitive pop-ups and so forth for the transitions between sections of the text. Pete suggested Twine as an option if those elements were important. As I finished writing Spree and developing the relationship between the text and the spaces explored in What3Words/Google Street View I realised I didn’t need them: they would have interfered with the exploration of space and story. So I kept it simple, stuck with WordPress and focused on production values for the audio instead, commissioning Molly and Dave to help me finesse that experience for my reader.
As those who know me IRL can confirm, since I got my first iPhone I’ve been hooked to the tiny screen. I do a lot of my research, emails, etc. from my iPhone rather than my laptop as i’m trying to make the most of snatched moments on the bus (back when public transport was viable) or even just walking along the street (back when I had childcare. This is not an option with a 2 yr old in tow). I’d always assumed my project would be primarily navigated on a smartphone. Alas, the streetview integration I made such an essential part of both creating and exploring the story is not an option on the What3Words iPhone app at point of writing this, ditto on a tablet or other brands of smartphone. Anyone reading this who know a quick and easy tech fix, please get in touch as I’d love to have that functionality to the project.