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‘To be or not to be?’ Please yourself . . .

A Choose Your Own Adventure—style take on Hamlet has become the most successful publishing project yet on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. Daryl Holland paints the journey — from whacky idea to publishing hit —picking a path through the mind of quirky author Ryan North.

Words by Daryl Holland
 
Author Ryan North contemplates the “literal” explosion of his own head.

Author Ryan North contemplates the “literal” explosion of his own head.

December 2011: Ryan North, of Dinosaur Comics fame, is driving home one night to his home outside Toronto, Canada. He is thinking. He isn’t thinking about the ridiculously successful Kickstarter he will embark on the following year. He isn’t thinking that as a result of his success he will “literally explode”. No, Ryan North is thinking about Shakespeare.

He is thinking about the “to be or not to be” soliloquoy in Hamlet and it occurs to him that the phrase is structured like a choice: to be or not to be? He thinks: “Oh, that’s like one of those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books.” And then his next thought is . . . 

North is at a crossroads. Should he choose to think “that’s a cool idea, but it will never get published”, then skip to the next paragraph. But should he choose “Oh my gosh, I have to write this!”, then skip to paragraph five.

– Boring! This story is finished. Maybe he gets home and has a nap. I don’t know. The End.

—  Good choice. This is really going to pay off for North. His idea for an illustrated, choosable-path Hamlet adventure for grown-ups is about to become one of the great Kickstarter success stories. But there is a wild ride and a lot of work ahead, so hold on tight.

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And so begins the adventure of ‘To Be Or Not To Be: That is the adventure’. It’s not like the author of Dinosaur Comics and Adventure Time comics, purveyor of popular merchandise, editor of short-story anthology Machine of Death and its sequel This is How You Die (released July 16), and chief executive officer of online advertising firm Project Wonderful has anything better to do.

The book takes six months to write. It is 80,000 words long, like a full-sized, ‘choiceless’ novel.

There are three main characters who readers can choose to play: Hamlet, described in the Kickstarter pitch as “an emo teen in his early 30s”; Ophelia (“She’s got a +1 science stat, but she’s also got a -1 weakness against water, so heads up!”); and Hamlet’s dad, King Hamlet (“You . . . become a ghost and must INVESTIGATE YOUR OWN MURDER that you TOTALLY SLEPT THROUGH because you got SLEEPY IN AN ORCHARD”).

“It’s funny, I remembered Ophelia as being this really strong and awesome character and then when I re-read the play . . . she’s not that,” says North, in an interview with The Citizen. “She’s written as basically an object that gets used to make Hamlet feel sad. And so in my version I made her super-awesome because why not?

“Shakespeare plagiarised Hamlet from my book. He did one run-through and then copied it. Shakespeare is the one who made Ophelia sucky.”

North thinks that some of Shakespeare’s 500-year-old prose hasn’t aged well.

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“I think he’s sort of un-contentiously considered to be a good writer. That seems a pretty fair statement to me,” says North, before adding: “He writes some terrible stuff. The whole premise of couples having sex in the dark with the wrong person and they don’t realise it seems the kind of story that someone who has never had sex would make up.”

North, on the other hand, writes sex scenes like a pro. You make out for what turns out to be QUITE a while, as the night is warm and the stars are stunning and there are no bugs here to bite any exposed flesh and before you know it, you’ve totally made out as much as it’s possible to totally make out – NICE – and you both fall asleep in each other’s arms. If ghosts exist, and if one really did show up, he certainly had the good graces to leave you alone for your makeouts. Also, he was probably embarrassed: you were both way naked!

In Hamlet, there is a play within a play, so in To Be Or Not To Be, there is a book within a book, with the reader at one point becoming Claudius. You are now King Claudius! You murdered your brother so you could marry his widow and claim the throne, but don’t tell anyone!

North explains that, ignoring infinite loops, there are three quadrillion possible stories. “A lot of them are going to be really similar to one another but it means that everyone who reads this book is likely to have a different experience.”

If you want to make the choices that Shakespeare made, they are marked with little Yorick skulls.

“I like him not,” Claudius says, “nor stands it safe with us to let his madness range. Therefore prepare you. I your commission will forthwith dispatch, and he to England shall along with you.”

“Dude, nobody’s seen Hamlet for days,” Rosencrantz replies.

July 2012: North decides he wants the book illustrated. “I’m friends with a lot of illustrators . . . ”

What does North think next? Should he choose to think “but they are probably all busy”, then go to the next paragraph. Should he think instead “and if I had every ending illustrated that would be AMAZING!”, then skip a paragraph.

 — It turns out they really aren’t that busy. Read on.

“There’s a culture of people saying: ‘You like to draw, you should do this for free for me,’ which is really sucky and it’s something professional illustrators and professional artists and professional cartoonists face all the time,” says North. He wants to pay the artists a fair wage: “OK, well, I need some money.”

North approaches an agent, who says: “Honestly this is a hard sell. You’re working in the least popular way of telling a story, which is the second person… and you’re working in one of the least popular genres for adults, which is the choose-your-own-adventure genre.”

So North decides to go with the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and raise the money from his fans. North has a lot of fans.

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November 21, 2012: The 30-day campaign begins! For $US20 each backer is promised a signed black-and-white paperback with 30 illustrations.

North’s funding goal is $US20,000, the minimum amount he needs to make the book. If he doesn’t get $US20,000, those who have pledged support get their money back and the project is cancelled, but he is confident of reaching this goal. He adds “stretch goals” — including the promise of more illustrations and a prequel — at $US5000 or $US10,000 intervals up to $US100,000, thinking there is an outside chance of reaching this target over the month.

North presses the ‘go’ button and . . . nothing. Three minutes pass and nobody has pledged. “OH, NO! This is clearly a disaster, because I put it on Twitter and Twitter is so fast,” says North. His introductory video is, of course, three-and-a-half minutes long.

And then it goes crazy.

He raises $US20,000 in three-and-a-half hours. He writes: “I’m humbled and thrilled and super excited all at once. I call this new emotion, ‘exrillbled’! I may be renaming it in the future. ANYWAY! You guys are the best ever in time!!”

On the fourth day, the project passes $US100,000 and exceeds North’s stretch goals.

“The advantage of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites is that the scope and the scale of the project can change as you’re being funded,” North reflects. 

North has added a prequel, Poor Yorick, and an audiobook. All 110 endings are now going to be illustrated by “SOME OF THE BEST VISUAL ARTISTS AND ILLUSTRATORS ALIVE TODAY”. More than 60 artists are now involved.

Does North sit back and watch the moolah roll in? Next paragraph, if you please. Or, does he keep adding stretch goals until he literally explodes? Skip the next paragraph.

— Ryan North becomes a wealthy man, but also sad. The End.

“You get this positive feedback loop where the project gets better so people pledge more which makes the project get better so people pledge more,” North continues.

By Day Nine, $US200,000 has been pledged. North promises to stage a live, Internet-streamed ‘choosable-path’ play of the book. This actually happens. “What I learnt from that experience,” he says, “is that the Internet will always choose the craziest option. If you give a choice between ride a horse or ride a duck the Internet will choose to ride that duck.

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Ten days later North has raised $US300,000 and the book will now be in full-colour.

And the pledges keep coming. At $US400,000, Poor Yorick — a book that did not exist before the Kickstarter began — also becomes full-colour.

North praises his backers: “We started 28 days ago with a black-and-white book with 30 illustrations. We’re now offering multiple full-colour books with every ending illustrated, all at the same price, and all thanks to your support.”

For his $US500,000 goal, North jokes that he will “literally explode”.

Whether the bizarre promise entices a different sort of backer to come on board is impossible to judge, but in the last 48 hours “it goes nuts” and North ends up raising $US580,905 ($A630,000) from 15,352 donors. It is the biggest grossing publishing Kickstarter yet.

January 2013: Ryan North literally explodes.

“That’s what you get for making jokes on the Internet,” he says.

To help make this happen North turns to an old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary. He discovers that “explode” can be used transitively, so he doesn’t have to explode himself. “You can explode an object. You can explode a house. You can explode a 3D-printed model of your head.”

So that’s what he does. Not the house, though.

“We were picking up pieces of this head a block away. It was really cool. I’ve got some of the debris on my mantelpiece,” North recalls.

And then there is the less dangerous but more onerous task of producing a full-colour, illustrated, novel-length choosable-path adventure book. Getting all the artwork done is “a bit of a challenge”, says North, but the artists are “super-fast and super-great at meeting their deadlines”.

And then there is laying out the book, which North says is “tricky because there are some challenges with the book-within-a-book being presented nicely and . . . in wanting the book to be perfect. I feel like every publisher and every artist and every writer wants that, but there are special challenges in a book like this. You have to make sure all the pages link together properly.”

May 2013: Poor Yorick is written and illustrated; the audiobook is in post-production; the play has been performed; the skulls, bookmarks, posters, temporary tattoos and stickers are “sitting in a warehouse AT AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION”, North writes, and the book is at the printers.

There is just one small river left to cross: a river of ink. 

“If I do this again, I will not be signing every book,” says North. “I feel like that was, perhaps, the greatest mistake I made, because I have 15,000 books to sign now.”

He is surprisingly upbeat: “I’m actually looking forward to it . . . I feel like it’s sort of a mountain to climb and I feel like I can do it. I haven’t really been training but I’ve got that hubris of the amateur mountain climber. It’ll be fun.”

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July 2013: Over five days North sits in a warehouse in Austin, Texas and signs 16,700 books and other items, setting an unofficial world record in the process for most signatures in one sitting — 4340.

He reflects on his amazing Kickstarter adventure: “The book is 764 pages, which is a lot. One of the reasons it’s so big is because we . . . could afford to put every ending on this nice two-page spread. So the art really shows . . . and that’s something you’d never do in traditional publishing because you wouldn’t expect that people would want that and they would pay for that.

“But I don’t have to worry, because they’ve already paid. They’ve already made the book as awesome as it can be.

“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s super-gratifying work.”

* To Be Or Not To Be: That is the adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeare and YOU is available for pre-order from Breadpig for $US28.95 ($A31) plus shipping. The publisher’s profits are being donated to the Canadian Cancer Society.

* Images courtesy of Ryan North. Artists: Tyson HesseBecky Dreistadt, Anthony Clark, KC Green, Noelle Stevenson (cover).    

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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