After four years of discussion, three complete do-overs and two print runs, we finally launched Writer Emergency Pack.

It’s a deck full of useful ideas to help get your story unstuck.

Here’s a video we made to explain it:

It’s on Kickstarter. It’s already fully funded. It’s been an exciting 24 hours.

How we got here

Writer Emergency Pack was originally called Unstuck, and it was supposed to be an iPhone app. In fact, it was our very first app, built by me and Nima Yousefi before I’d even met him in person.

Here’s an early drawing I did for the launch screen:

UI drawing

The original idea was that you shook your phone, Magic 8-Ball style, and a suggestion would appear.

When I hired Ryan Nelson as my Director of Digital Things, we re-conceived the app, giving it a vintage survival guide vibe. Here’s Ryan’s mockup for the iPad version.

Unstuck iPad

We built it. We hated it.

It was sort of a book, but not really. Something about pulling out your phone to deal with story problems felt wrong. When you’re writing, the phone is a distraction, not a solution. Once you’re looking at that little screen, you’re tempted to check email, or Twitter, or play a quick game.

The iPhone was the wrong tool for the job.

So we never released it. Instead, we focused on the apps that would become Highland and Weekend Read.

But there were aspects of Unstuck we loved. Ryan Nelson had designed amazing artwork inspired by vintage Boy Scout handbooks. I’d written a bunch of the suggestions for the app. And we’d commissioned terrific illustrations by David Friesen.

unstuck illustrations

And then we lost the name Unstuck. Technically, you can’t lose what you never owned, but it still felt like a loss. A self-help project called Unstuck took the URL and started making apps and registering trademarks.

Nameless = aimless

Our Unstuck was basically dead. Every week at our staff meeting, Unstuck would be at the bottom of our list of projects. “Yeah, that’s still kind of a good idea,” I’d say. Then I’d remember there were lots of other projects we were working on, and this one didn’t even have a name. So for three years, it was always the lowest priority.

But two ideas arrived together to make us look at the project again.

First, the idea of using playing cards. JJ Abrams’s company always sends cool holiday gifts, and one year they sent a deck of custom Bad Robot playing cards. A few months ago, I found the deck again and marveled at it. “How expensive is it to make custom cards?” I wondered aloud. Some googling led to the answer: playing cards are very expensive to print unless you’re printing a bunch at once.

Then at Jordan Mechner’s wedding, each guest received a limited-edition deck of cards. The design was terrific; the printing was extraordinary. More googling led me down a rabbit hole of card designers and collectors, many of them connecting through Kickstarter. There was a whole community making cards. If they could do it, we could do it.

Cards felt like an appropriately tactile solution to story problems. After all, screenwriters use index cards all the time. And unlike an iPhone, if you’re pulling these cards out, you’re focussed on writing, not Twitter. I started to think about how I could rewrite my suggestions to fit in a smaller format.

Then, on episode 161 of Scriptnotes, Aline Brosh McKenna joined us and described how she’d recently solved a nagging script problem by deliberately upending her own expectations about one character. It was exactly the kind of suggestion I wanted Unstuck to provide.

If Unstuck existed. Which it didn’t.

I asked Ryan to mock up his drowning-man artwork as a playing card box. He did. It looked great.

unstuck box

But of course, it couldn’t be called Unstuck, because there were a lot of other trademarks in the way.

The drowning man felt like a screenwriter being pulled underwater. He was a writer having an emergency, and this object was a pack of cards.

Putting it all together, we got Writer Emergency Pack. Once we had a name, we had a unifying concept: a survival kit for “writer emergencies” — stalled stories, confused characters, plodding plots, alliterative et ceteras.

header graphic

From there, it was still a tremendous amount of work to figure out how to actually do it. We printed demo decks. We showed them around. I rewrote everything. But we finally had a clear destination — something we were lacking for four years.

Quite appropriately, making Writer Emergency Pack has been a lot like writing a screenplay. When you’re trying to fix a broken idea, it’s a thankless grind. When you’re executing an idea you love, it’s a treat. It’s been tremendously fun to figure out how to make these cards.

And now that we’re funded, we’ll get to make a bunch of them.

The Kickstarter phase of the process is a very quick 16 days, so don’t miss out on the chance to preorder. There’s no guarantee we’ll have any extras, so this may be the one opportunity to get them.

You can find Writer Emergency Pack exclusively on Kickstarter. Choose “Back This Project” to reserve your deck.