Friday, 30 November 2012

Small Epiphanies

I'm not sure if the title of this post is technically correct. Can you have a small epiphany, or are they always great huge things that clout you around the head and take your breath away? Anyway, when I had one of these sudden writing realisations at the SCBWI Conference last weekend, I was reminded what a good environment it was for these unexpected leaps of thinking. The fact that I was able to nonchalantly describe the emotional heart of my new novel to Sara Grant just ten minutes later, was a bonus! (I don't get to look nonchalant very often – my default mode is "slightly flustered")

I also remembered being at the conference three years earlier and having almost exactly the same experience. One of the speakers back then had suggested writing a three word pitch for your novel, so I tried it with Back from the Dead, which had recently lurched into Undiscovered Voices. I came up with Zombies Are Family and it was so spot on that it made me cry. I realised how central the idea of families was to the story, how the plot was driven by the protagonist trying to find his zombified relatives and discovering a whole new family unit in the process. Unwittingly, I had found the heart of the story, over a year since I'd started writing it. And it was a good thing I did, because that emotional core helped to drive and shape the novel through the massive rewrite I would do over the year that followed.

So what is it about the SCBWI conference that encourages moments like these to happen? Well, first of all I think it's a very stimulating environment. I don't believe in a universal consciousness or anything like that, but being around like-minded people definitely allows ideas to mix and mutate. You also spend a lot of time discussing your own and other people's books, and that sets up plenty of thought-lines for your brain to work on. In the hurly-burly of everyday life, it can be hard to set aside that kind of pure thinking time, but at the conference, it's very much encouraged.

The other thing that changes is the nature of the thought process. All too often when writing a novel, I need to concentrate on the practical business of constructing the story and characters – the what. But being with certain writers (and Sara is an excellent example) conversation quickly turns to the why. Why am I writing this book? What makes it special to me and me alone? Why have I chosen that setting or that mix of characters? The answers may not come out immediately, but more often than not, the unconscious choices bubble to the surface as small epiphanies.

These are the moments we cherish as writers, where just for a second the pieces interlock and we get a glimpse of the picture behind. I'm not a religious man, but there's something divine about that. Thank you SCBWI, for making it happen.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Transmedia - Setting Stories Free

As promised, I'm going to provide a quick run-through of the material that we covered in the Transmedia session at the SCBWI British Isles Conference last weekend. I thought it was a really stimulating hour, and I wish we could have had more time to cover such a wide subject area. To provide some context, here's the session outline from the conference programme:
Transmedia is one of the hottest concepts in the entertainment world, allowing stories to break away from books or films and be told across many types of media simultaneously. These multiplatform stories are creating new opportunities for writers and illustrators, and challenging our traditional view of narrative. In this engaging panel, we'll be exploring what Transmedia is, where it's going and how you can get involved.
I was due to be joined by two guests – Eric Huang from Penguin and Cally Poplak from Egmont Press. Unfortunately, Cally had to pull out at the last minute as the rescheduled launch of a new app based on War Horse meant she would need to spend the day with Michael Morpurgo instead (it's a hard life). But we restructured the session and I hope you couldn't see the joins! I was helped by the fact that Eric was the kind of speaker we all hope for at these sessions – sharp, well-informed and passionate about the business of making stories.

We started with a brief definition of what Transmedia was. I provided a rather wordy analysis, taken from the blog of Henry Jenkins, who is a Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California:
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
Eric was able to give a much more succinct definition - his contention was that a Transmedia story is one that is conceived for multiple platforms from the beginning. It is not the process of taking an existing book and making it into a film or an app.

So what kinds of media can you use to tell a Transmedia story?

 All of these and many more – in fact, anything you can think of. That's the really exciting thing about Transmedia, it's only limited by your imagination.

In Cally's absence, I talked about the Transmedia campaign for Michael Grant's YA novel BZRK, using it as an example of how a Transmedia story works in practice. Grant, of course, also wrote the Gone series, which has been a big seller for Egmont. BZRK is a new science fiction thriller series that revolves around nanotechnology, and has the characters learning to pilot microscopic robots to invade other people's bodies. It's very boy-oriented, a kind of heavy metal version of Fantastic Voyage.

The Transmedia story began many months before the launch of the book, and it was intended to build an audience and the world before the novel came out. The story was told live, building up day-by-day as it immersed the audience in a parallel world where the misuse of technology was threatening the very fabric of our society. Of course, the irony here is that this story could not have been told in the same way without heaps of technology like websites, blog feeds, digital comics, internet video, ZIP files and apps.

You can still see all of the material used in the campaign at For instance, here is a page from the blog at the centre of the campaign, supposedly written by an Egmont editor:

If you look closely, you can see a typical element of a Transmedia story, which is the number written on the woman's hand. This might have been an access code to unlock a completely separate site, allowing the reader to discover further parts of the story. This "treasure hunt" aspect is often used in Transmedia to increase audience immersion, encouraging readers to dig for clues and solve mysteries. Plot devices like this acknowledge that the role of the audience is changing – readers increasingly want to participate in stories, not just be passive observers.

Here's an interesting piece of media from the site – a message written on a coffee cup.

It's quite possible to see how this item could have allowed the story to cross into the physical world, that the storytellers could have left this in a real-life location and given the readers' clues where to find it.

A high-profile part of the Transmedia push was a mobile app that allowed you to play out some of the nanobot action from the book. You can see a trailer here, but be warned that it's intended for thirteen-year-old boys and may cause permanent damage to post-adolescent brains!

After this introduction to Transmedia, it was Eric Huang's turn to speak. Eric's role at Penguin is Director of New Business and IP Acquisitions, which puts him at the forefront of cross-platform publishing (see last week's blog for a useful glossary). What really struck me was his understanding of the continuing role of the publisher in the digital age, even in a market where they have to compete with film, TV and gaming companies. Eric was very clear that Penguin will not be pushing their brands as far as they can possibly go. If a story world is better served by staying in book form, then that is where it will stay.

Eric's first example was taken from the world of Moshi Monsters. For anyone without school age children, this is a massively popular online world where children can adopt and train their own cute monster, interacting with the monsters created by other players. Moshi Monsters is intended to be safe and welcoming for parents as well as children, so one of the first problems that Penguin identified when they started discussing a spin-off book was the lack of an antagonist. Penguin brought their editorial thinking to the table, creating a story around the world as well as a baddie called Dr Strangeglove. Subsequently, Dr Strangeglove popped up in the virtual world and is increasingly visible in Moshi Monsters books and other merchandise.

Puffin Rock is another property that Penguin have recently bought into – puffins are an iconic part of Penguin's children's publishing, and Eric was keen to do something with them. By partnering with animation studio Cartoon Saloon and children's media company Dog Ears, they will produce Puffin Rock for multiple platforms – books, e-books, an animated TV series and apps.

Edmund and Cecilie is a debut Transmedia property with a charming old-school art style and a world set in a forest where every tree has grown from the seed of a story. It also highlights the changing roles of creators in the Transmedia world – Chris Mould and Matt Howarth are an author-developer duo.

One really fascinating Transmedia project Eric talked about involves robots and was so new that it doesn't have a name yet! It will kick off with an app that lets children customise their own robots and send them into battle, Pokémon style. Then a book will follow, with a plot twist that turns the whole world upside down. The books will feed back into the app world and the most successful players will even find themselves featuring in later books, as celebrities of the robot world.

Eric and I briefly discussed the wider implications of Transmedia following his presentation and he then took questions from the audience. I wasn't taking notes during this part, so please add anything else you remember in the comments section. Besides, this blog post is already long enough!

Let me finish by thanking Eric and the attendees for their time and attention. It was a really worthwhile hour and I hope we can run something similar again. Here are a few resources to let you delve further into the brave new world of multi-platform stories:
OK, my work here is done. Now go reinvent the world of storytelling already!


P.S. If you want to follow Eric on Twitter, his ID is @dinoboy89

Friday, 16 November 2012

Cross-Platform Publishing - A Bluffer's Guide

While I was researching my SCBWI Conference Transmedia Session (which I'll be blogging about next week for anyone who can't make it), I kept running into new terms, ideas and trends, many of which can be baffling for the uninitiated. The world of publishing is moving very fast at the moment, especially in terms of the need to expand beyond the print book and embrace multiple platforms. If you're already asking what a platform is and how it affects you, then this glossary is here to help:

  • Platform – This is a word that can have many different meanings in the digital world. For instance, it could refer to the hardware platform used by an app or the network that an author establishes to sell their book. In this context, a platform is a particular method of delivering content to your audience – e.g. print book, e-book, DVD, TV, online game, blog, Twitter stream etc.
  • Media – This is pretty much synonymous with platform. The main reason I didn't use this to title the article is because Cross-Media has a slightly more restrictive meaning than Cross-Platform (see definition below).
  • Channel – Another tricky word. This could mean sales channel (e.g. Waterstones, Amazon, iTunes) or it can be synonymous with Platform and Medium (think TV channel).
  • Multiplatform – Exactly as it sounds (for a change): being present on multiple platforms.
  • Transmedia – A fictional or non-fictional work that exists across several media platforms simultaneously. Crucially, the content on each platform will be different – you have to experience the work on more than one platform to get the full effect.
  • Cross-Media – This used to mean the same as Transmedia (are you confused yet?) but has shifted to denote a single piece of content that's consumed via different platforms. For instance, if you buy a Blu-ray film nowadays, it often comes with a DVD copy and a digital download, allowing you to watch the same movie across media.
  • Multimedia – This became a popular term for the multimedia CD-ROMs sold in the 1990s, so it isn't used much nowadays to avoid adding even more confusion!
  • Intellectual Property – Often called IP or simply "property", this term is essential to modern publishing-speak. Quite simply, the property is the creative item at the heart of the media web. Whether it is a concept, a character or even a whole story world like Harry Potter, the property is what the publisher looks to exploit across multiple platforms. I choose the word exploit deliberately, because some creators can get a bit sniffy about having their beautiful artistic endeavour reduced to the level of a commodity. But they also rarely say no to the money that comes their way when their creation goes global (The comics writer Alan Moore is a notable exception).

    Eric Huang - who will be joining me at the Transmedia session - has the grand title of "New Business and IP Acquisitions Director" at Penguin Books. His job is to strategically buy-in properties that can be exploited across platforms – as in this recent announcement about Puffin Rock.
  • Rights – These are the permissions that the original creator grants to publishing and media companies, for the reuse of their copyrighted material. Rights are generally segmented by platform and regional market, and different companies may have rights to the same property. For instance, the copyright for the Fantastic Four is owned by Marvel Comics (which in turn is owned by Disney). However, the film rights for the Fantastic Four have been sold to 20th Century Fox, which is why you won't see Human Torch popping up in the next Avengers movie.
  • Licensing – This is a business distinction more than anything, describing how publishers choose to sell certain rights to other companies (such as in the Fantastic Four example above). What to license and to who is a complex decision – licensed products will tend to be less creatively satisfying, but a licensing deal can also offer strong revenues for minimal effort on the part of the licensor.
  • Franchise – Some properties like Harry Potter or Star Wars grow so large that they become unstoppable franchises. The ginormous $4 billion that Disney recently paid for Lucasfilm was based almost entirely on the revenue potential of the Star Wars franchise (but fair play to George Lucas, who has decided to give most of the money to charity).
  • Brand – Brands are an inescapable part of modern life – from Apple to Zanussi, companies are desperate to sell us their branded products and somehow induct us into cult-like brand loyalty. Most franchises are also brands in one way or another. With publishing, it's hard to define whether the brand is the publisher, the author, the book or even a particular character. All are possible - consider Penguin as a publishing brand, James Patterson as an author brand, The Hunger Games as a book brand or Peppa Pig as a character brand.
  • Brand Extension – This is quite literally the process of extending a brand into new areas – think about how the Virgin brand has constantly morphed and shifted over the past few decades. In a publishing context, the term "media-extension" is sometimes used (as in this article) to denote expanding a book onto other platforms.

Phew! That was a whirlwind tour through the brave new world of cross-platform publishing. If you think there are any terms I've missed, please feel free to flag them in the comments. I appreciate that all this stuff can be confusing, and you might well say: "I'm just paid to write/illustrate the book - why should I care about all this?" My response would be to point out that we are no longer in a world where the book is the only thing that matters, and then leave you all to argue about how damaging/exciting that shift is.


Friday, 9 November 2012

The Other Side of the Desk

At the SCBWI Professional Series debut author panel the other day, a couple of the writers commented on how happy they were to be on the other side of the desk this year, facing the questions. It occurred to me that in exactly two weeks the same thing is going to happen to me, that I'm finally going to pass onto the other side of the desk at a SCBWI conference, moderating a session on Transmedia Storytelling.

It's a weird feeling, because ever since I went to my first writers' event, I've wanted to be the one up there in the spotlight (to the extent that I occasionally forget my role as audience member rather than performer). I managed a brief appearance at the SCBWI retreat a year ago - which was an enjoyable session - but I've had my sights set on the conference since the first year I attended (this is my fourth)

Getting onto the other side of the desk (not just with SCBWI, but also more generally) has proved harder than I expected. It hasn't been as difficult as landing a publishing deal, it's true (still working on that), but the two are closely linked. It turns out that having boundless enthusiasm and a big mouth are not sufficient qualifications for hosting a writers' event - organisers also want this thing called "publishing credentials" to attract an audience. But I was a software geek, and while my technical credentials remained impeccable, my publishing cachet hovered somewhere around zero.

I noticed after a while that writing events were often organised around promotional concerns – an author would be appearing with a book to sell, a publisher might be looking to seek out new talent or promote their list. I'm not being critical of this, because the PR and networking opportunities are what make it possible for organisations like SCBWI to run writing events at relatively low cost. But it did seem that you needed to have published a book to get invited to speak at events, which made my continued failure to get published doubly frustrating.

So what changed? Well, publishing, mostly. The unstoppable march of digital meant that my software experience was suddenly relevant, and I took the decision to switch industries and join OUP. Almost overnight, I had gained these mysterious publishing credentials (and even better, I was getting paid to improve them). It seemed like people might finally be willing to listen to me beyond the blogosphere. Oh, the crazy fools!

How do I feel about achieving this long held ambition to move to the other side of the desk? A little terrified, if I'm honest. It's weird that I should feel this way, because I had to give a presentation to 70 people at work the other week and it was absolutely fine. But there's something subtly different about presenting to people who are paying actual money to attend the conference, who naturally expect SCBWI's high quality standards to be maintained. It's been a long time since the session was confirmed, long enough for plenty of doubts to worm their way into my brain. What if I'm too nervous to speak? What if no-one turns up? What if I go mad and dance Gangnam Style on the desk while the panel accompanies me on kazoo?

It turns out that realising your dreams is a strange feeling, to the extent that you start to question if they were valid dreams in the first place. This isn't the first time I've talked here about fear of success and I'm sure it won't be the last. Actually, I hope it isn't, because that would mean I'm continuing to be successful!

But right now, there are last-minute details to be worked out and last-minute hitches to overcome. I hope that all of my preparation will pay off and that I'll also see a few of you at the session. Once that hour is over I'll be gloriously free to enjoy the rest of the conference. But as for next year...

Is the author keynote too much to ask?



Saturday, 3 November 2012

Room to Grow

Years ago, in the half-forgotten time before iTunes, I read a lot of music reviews in magazines. In them, an album might be described as "a grower" – the kind of music that wasn't instantly catchy but nonetheless crept up on you over weeks and months to become a firm favourite. The growth metaphor was very apt, because there was a singular pleasure in nurturing the tiny shoots of interest (or bafflement) your first exposure created, feeding the album with your time until it blossomed into something fabulous. I can remember as a fifteen-year-old deciding that I simply had to follow my friends by getting into heavy metal, and then listening to an Iron Maiden album time and again until the music made sense to me. That one action had a huge effect on my life for the next five years or more, and I became a massive metalhead until the time I left university.

That all seems like ancient history now, because we live (as advertisers like to keep reminding us) in a fast-moving, take-no-prisoners kind of world. Music, books, movies, TV – all these things must pass along the content pipe, be briefly enjoyed and then forgotten. This feels to me like the process of food passing down the alimentary canal – buy, consume, excrete, repeat. To stretch the metaphor a little further, I think we're in danger of suffering a sort of mental malnutrition - by consuming so much and so often, we have less time to extract the nutrients from our media or even to really enjoy it.

Before I come over too sanctimoniously middle-aged, I should admit that I'm guilty of all the modern crimes of impatience and short attention span. I have given up on movies after fifteen minutes or books after ten pages, never to return. I haven't finished a video game in well over a year, despite the fact that I used to be able to follow them through to the bitter end. But - stubbornly persistent as all authors are - there are other works that I've struggled through and ultimately enjoyed. I think I watched the film version of The Shining four times before it finally made sense to me on an emotional level, and it wasn't until my second viewing of movies like Adaptation and Barton Fink that I really appreciated them. The first episode of The Wire bored me, quite frankly, and if I hadn't already bought the boxset, I might not have continued with that ultimately fabulous series. I've also just finished (and really enjoyed) Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, despite the fact it was her novel The Red Necklace that I abandoned after ten pages.

With so much content available and more arriving all the time, it's easy to have a mental checklist, ruling out authors, directors or musicians just because we didn't like something they did once before. But creative people constantly grow and change, and it's also impossible to account for our own mental state when we encountered that work the first time. There is a kind of alchemy that happens between creator and consumer, an emotional transference through the cinema screen or printed page – sometimes we are receptive enough to let that happen, and other times too preoccupied with our own problems.

For all these reasons and more, we owe it to ourselves to take a step back every so often and analyse those things we didn't "get", perhaps asking ourselves if it's worth going back for another look. It could yet grow into something beautiful.