Interview Transcript between Jesse Tannous (Northeast Valley News) and Laura Crenshaw (Creator of Mythulu).
October 21st, 2018
As the creator what is your background? (Where did you study, what did you study, relevant work experience, anything you'd like to add)
I’m a professional writer.
I ghostwrote the book Neverboss (Released July 2017) for my dad and that’s the only story currently in print. My unsold scripts include a fantasy novel (Written in Our Bones), a TV pilot (Reckless), 2 movie screenplays (Melissande, Turn the Ship Around), and outlines of 78 episodes for a 6-season show (Imaginary). I’m currently in early outlining stages for Boy’s Love manga (manhwa, if you want to be technical). My favorite genres to write are YA epic fantasy and Boy’s Love.
I studied Business Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Before that, I worked at the Anasazi Foundation for 10 months, serving at a wilderness therapy trail guide for at-risk teenagers. I’m a primitive survival expert and enjoy archery. Lions Gate once tried to recruit me for a wilderness survival TV show (I made it to the final round of casting when the show was cancelled). I also have a Wilderness First Responder medical certification from NOLS.
My medical training, primitive survival skills, and extensive off-trail hiking experiences all have a massive impact on my writings. I love to tell gritty, realistic stories with a loving, lighthearted edge. I strive to tell stories that have never been told---although I’m certainly still very young in my writing career and know my skills still have plenty of room to grow.
When was Mythulu published?
Our soft launch was Sept 7th, 2018. Our official public launch date is Nov 15th.
How long have you been developing it?
From conception to launch, it took 18 months.
Who were the main individuals involved in its production?
My friend Eric Rosano was our first angel investor. We met through ASU---he was originally my accounting professor. I discovered that he had a passion for writing, so after the semester ended, I invited him to form a writing group with me. After almost a year, I showed up at our writing group one day with the first version of Mythulu---literally just an excel spreadsheet with some buttons to randomly draw---and he begged me on the spot to become an investor.
Eric is the best business partner I could ask for. He’s patient with me as I learn how to run my first business. He’s massively supportive, shares my vision for our company, and helps us all be more lighthearted about things---which is impressive, because he’s got a lot of skin in the game. When I’m facing difficult decisions, Eric is often the best person I can call, because he sees through emotional clutter, asks great questions, and brings clarity every time.
My brother, Calvin Crenshaw serves as our Graphic Designer. The cards look as clean-cut as they do because Calvin is a razor sharp designer who is devoted to precision and good craft. Calvin is also a novelist and I rely on him for storytelling sanity as well. Calvin manages almost every visual interface
My partner Nathaniel Gustafson is our technical guru. He’s an unofficial member of our team and pitches in when technical needs exceed my skills.
My brother Nate Crenshaw is a professional business consultant for Accenture… He provides advice sometimes, and his input has saved us a ton of money in the past, as well as elevating the quality of Mythulu overall.
Our team of programmers in Pakistan is lead by Muhammad Waqas of O16-Labs. They are currently developing our app (for both iOS and Android). We’re in the final debugging stages and will be releasing the app in early November. Muhammad is a rockstar programmer and has been great to work with. My local programming friend, Autumn Valenta is also heavily involved.
We also have a diverse team of artists from all over the world. Some of our best artists include: Roc McKelvie, an Australian concept artist who worked for Peter Jackson on LOTR; Le Vuong from Vietnam; and Tithi Luadthong from Taiwan, who single-handedly created 1/6th of all our art.
We had several local artists who were involved in the early stages as well—the most important of which was probably my friend Mandy, who had the guts to tell me I wasn’t a good enough artist to do it myself. She was dead right, and her honesty probably saved the whole project.
What's the meaning behind your company name?
Our name is a hat-tip to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu---arguably the most beloved modern-day myth-maker since the Grimm Brothers & Hans Christian Andersen. Mythulu’s mission is to inspire original myths, and we admire Lovecraft’s example. This is also why our logo has an octopus (aside from the fact that we just really, really love octopuses).
What were the circumstances that led to the initial concept of Mythulu?
Back in early 2017, I saw a Kickstarter campaign for “writing cards”. It was highlighted as a groundbreaking project in a Kickstarter email, so I got excited. When I looked harder, though, the creator pretty much just took a deck of tarot cards and slapped the word “writing” on them. The art was embarrassingly terrible and their cards didn’t live up to the hype.
I was surprisingly disappointed by it. After multiple days of the Kickstarter cards haunting my mind, I finally thought, “Why am I so disappointed by this? What did I hope the cards would be? If I was that team, how would I make writing cards?”
I was at work when this thought hit me, so I scribbled a few ideas on post-it notes and stuck them to my desk. Didn’t think much of it at the time.
Well, a week later, the company I worked for got hit with a horrible computer virus that ravaged our whole network. I was in the accounting department, and we lost three months of accounting data. We processed millions of dollars in transactions, so losing three months of data was three full months of work for three people. We started re-entering and two weeks later the virus hit again. It was a nightmare. But it also turned out of be a wonderful blessing in disguise---without which, I seriously doubt Mythulu would have happened.
The blessing came in the form of my friend, Juliet Petersen (who worked the secretarial position just before me and who got me that job in the first place). She came in part-time to help us re-enter data so we could recover from the breech. She used my desk on Monday while I was gone, and she found my 7 post-it notes with random card ideas.
Somehow, she understood from my notes what the hell I was trying to do, and she got super excited. When I came to work on Tuesday, at least 30 notes had exploded all over my desk, loaded with ideas I’d never ever considered. Hundreds of ideas. Juliet’s passion was hilarious and exhilarating. As we re-entered accounting data over the next few weeks, she and I spent a lot of time talking about the cards. We debated what categories (ultimately decks) the cards should be organized into. We debated storytelling quality of different archetypes and discussed deeper meanings and usage cases.
Without Juliet, I probably would have made a 50 card deck (if I made anything at all). Her enthusiasm and initial brainstorming was tipping point that turned Mythulu into the 300-card core pack we have planned with over 1,000 expansion cards in the works. I’m really grateful for that stupid virus. The world needed a bigger deck. 50 cards wouldn’t have cut it.
How has it changed or developed since that moment?
During my business classes at ASU, the Mythulu cards matured a lot. My business professors were fantastic at poking holes in my project. One of my business classes required us to do face-to-face customer interviews. These interviews turned into some pretty serious research on writer’s block.
The biggest thing I learned from those interviews was that most people had given up on “original ideas”. Professional writers would tell me to my face that they didn’t believe original ideas existed. They felt like everything had been done.
One guy---a full-time professional novelist---said that when he gets writer’s block, he goes to his favorite classic books, and literally, literally… copies. He told me he changed the names and setting, then reused the exact situations. He cited popular stories of other authors claiming to do the same thing, and used this to justify his process.
I was shocked. Horrified. Angry, even. I went back to ASU and ranted to my professor about it. I know that creativity is the amalgamation of pre-existing ideas and innovation is the meaningful improvement of those smash-ups... but for them to say, “It’s all been done, so why bother?” Seriously?
Researching writer’s block woke up a passionate ire I didn’t know I had in me. Those interviews were the birthplace of Mythulu’s mission to rid the world of remakes, to inspire original myths, to become the protagonist spearheading a storytelling renaissance.
At the same time, those interviews gave me a deeper understanding of what writer’s block was to serious storytellers. I always assumed that people already had a core idea they wanted to talk about---a situation, a relationship, a puzzle---and just needed little details to speed up scene creation. Instead, I learned that most people are crippled by plot. Writing an effective, meaningful climax terrifies them. There’s no-man’s-land halfway through a manuscript where almost every budding writer gets stuck.
This realization changed very little about the core deck, but it changed a lot about the instructions and how we recommend people use them. It also sparked the idea for a Plot Progression expansion, which contains prompts that help writers learn how to writer the second half of a book (which is very different than writing the first half, and requires different storytelling skills).
Aside from these interviews, I’ve personally spent hundreds of hours devouring the best storycraft resources I can find. I’ve read Artistotle. I’ve attended Shakespeare plays and talked with actors in depth about their lines to understand what's going on and why they’re passionate about it. I’ve listened to podcasts, watched hours and hours of college writing lectures online, attended panels, read books and blog articles.
Understanding the craft of writing has become my life and every time I discover something new, I immediately turn around and use it to refine or expand Mythulu.
Why did you want to create this project?
Honestly, I wanted cards for myself. The idea of producing these for wide-spread public use didn’t seriously occur to me until Eric got excited and believed in the cards so fervently that he offered his life savings to make it happen.
Now, what keeps me going is the passion that lights up in the eyes of our users. There is a ton of amazing talent out there---people who are one tiny nudge away from spectacular genius. It doesn't take much help, so it's incredible to me that no one has done this before.
The teenagers in particular inspire me. I meet dozens of kids who are the next Christopher Paolini waiting to happen. They write 50K, 100K, 170K novels at age 11 or 15. The stories aren't polished enough for a traditional agent to take the writer on, and the adults in that kid's life don't know how to help, so these awesome stories just sit on their computer until the computer crashes and everything's lost. Or they tinker with it all alone for 15 years.
We started Mythulu to help people like that---passionate, driven, brilliant minds who just need a little boost here and there.
Who is supposed to benefit from this product, and how do you imagine it will help them?
Storytellers. Every kind of storyteller---game designers, D&D GMs, novelists, screenwriters, cartoonists, artists, dancers, architects, fashion designers, actors, marketers, inventors even… We’re surrounded by stories. We live in a beautiful world where you can collide almost any two objects--and with enough intelligence and devotion to quality, you can create something new and worthwhile. I think that’s awesome.
Those moments of creation are always stories. Sometimes they’re stories about the past. Sometimes they are visions of the future or how the future might be. Sometimes we’re just trying to make sense of the present.
Mythulu cards help in three ways. 1) Mythulu cards reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity makes people hesitate, and hesitation is the poison we call writer’s block. 2) Mythulu cards challenge what you think you know. Often the first ideas we’ve thrown on paper are thinly veiled fan fiction, or blindly accepted stereotypes. 3) Mythulu helps you find your author voice. By pulling you away from stereotypes and sparking your personal memories instead, you find the story only you can tell.
You've mentioned that Mythulu is just where you hope to begin, what do you think comes next for you or your company?
Our end game is obvious: We intend to become a publisher of new genres.
We’ve created a tool that makes it possible---easy, even---for writers to create wildly new stories. For brave authors, that power will become a problem really fast, because there’s not a publisher in the world willing to publish unproven formulas.
That’s idiocy, though, because novelty is a genre of its own. And with enough devotion to quality, you can make any genre appealing to absolutely anyone. We’re already fostering authors who we’re interested in giving publishing contracts to, once their scripts are ready.
Within five years, you’ll start seeing MYTHULU not just on card boxes but on book spines, and when you do---we promise you two things: 1) You’ll never have read anything like it before, and 2) it’s gonna be awesome.