Below is an interview that Michael Andersen conducted with prolific multimedia author Patrick Carman. Over the past few years, Carman has released a number of projects that seek to redefine the novel. In addition to his Skeleton Creek series, Carman wrote The Black Circle, book five in the 39 Clues franchise. Carman released Thirteen Days to Midnight in April and TRACKERS in May.
MA: What lead you to start writing transmedia novels? (Also, is there another term you prefer for the format?)
PC: I’m just going to come right out and say it at the top: Transmedia, as a unifying term, is beyond lame. And it points to a challenge we’re facing in this space: coining a term is a tricky business. What the heck do we call what we’re doing? I tried vBooks (also lame), others have tried Diginovel, iStories, Vook, cross-platform – the list goes on, and I think they all fail to inspire at a level that will bring everyone under one tent. You guys did better with ARG – Alternate Reality Game – it stuck. How’d you do that?
To our credit (and by ‘our’ I mean everyone trying to explode books into the 21st century landscape) we’re talking about a brand new way of telling stories. We’re probably supposed to fumble around in the dark for awhile, but I think we’re getting closer. My two cents as of today is that we’re basically talking about something that’s been around for a long time, namely multimedia. And really, that’s a pretty good term to describe what’s happening to with these books; they’re becoming something broader, encompassing different medias. It’s interesting that movies and TV shows and web sites don’t have the same challenge. Creators of those mediums aren’t sitting around debating what they should call something when a movie has an ARG and spawns a TV show. It’s simply multimedia. The difference with a project like Skeleton Creek or TRACKERS is that I’m committed to a simple premise those other examples aren’t interested in: for me, the destination is always the book. That means the videos, the games, the web sites – they have a job to do, which is to get young readers turning pages. At PC Studio, where we make all these assets, a video is only as good as the pages it pushes a reader to turn.
Long winded already and I haven’t even exited question number one. The short answer is MULTIMEDIA. That’s what it’s called, that’s what it is.
Past the riff and into the actual question: why am I creating multimedia stories?
I’ve had the unusual experience of visiting 900+ schools in the past nine years. Maybe that’s given me some street cred when it comes to tech and young readers, or maybe it’s just muddled my brain from all the cafeteria food. Either way, I have become a firm believer in one thing: technology is not the enemy of books. The sooner we put that horse out to pasture the better. There is no reason why technology can’t help create more young readers, not fewer young readers. I’m a computer nerd from way back, and I know this much: technology is a means, not an end, and it can be harnessed for whatever storytelling purpose we might have.
With TRACKERS and Skeleton Creek, I wanted to create a simple, straightforward approach to telling a story in print and video – read 20 pages, go online and watch part of the story, repeat. When a participant is done they’ve watched the equivalent of one Law and Order episode and they’ve read 200 pages. TRACKERS layers on games and puzzles, but at its core it’s still the same idea, and here’s why it’s working:
Take a room full of seventh graders where better than 50% of them don’t read unless they’re forced into it. Read the first 20 pages of TRACKERS out loud in that classroom, then go online and show them the first video. My email in box is proof that better than 90% of those non-readers will want to keep reading. Understanding they’re going to be rewarded every 20 pages for the effort they put in is a game changer. As long as we keep to the high ground – the book is the destination – we’ve solved the riddle of getting wired kids to read more.
MA: What is your role at PC Studios, and what part does the company play in the development and production of your novels? And how has Scholastic‘s role in the process changed based on the nature of the project (if it has at all?)
PC: At the beginning it was my role to write and oversee everything – I wrote the novels and the screenplays and developed every aspect of the format from the ground up. That’s changing as the format is maturing and more creative professionals are jumping in.
The studio is made up of five key players and about fifty subcontractors. I’m the creative director, so everything begins and ends at my desk. Jeffrey Townsend is the director of development, which means he creates shooting scripts, organizes talent searches, scouts locations, oversees the productions, directs and edits – he’s a major Jack of all trades for us. Joshua Pease is our webmaster and designer – I sometimes refer to him as our prodigy, because he started working with me when he was sixteen and he’s incredibly gifted, always has been. He slings the code, creates the online architecture, designs the sites and the ARG’s – and he keeps getting better (he’s like 100 now, or 20, I can’t remember which). Ben Apel does all of our online ARG work and he’s also pretty brilliant, and Albie Hecht, who used to run Nickelodeon and now runs World Wide Biggies, plays the role of producer for us. What that really means is that Albie Hecht is a prince. He’s one of those rare people who could play it safe and make nothing but TV shows and movies for the rest of his life, but has chosen to work in new media, where the stakes are higher. He’s like our guru, I guess. The other fifty or so people are everything you can think of on an on-call basis – artists, actors, editors, writers, and crew members on shoots.
When I did Skeleton Creek that was bleeding edge – exclude Cathy’s Book and 39 Clues and really no one else was getting into this space in a meaningful way. I think we’re maybe one more year away from seeing multimedia really proliferate in publishing, and PC Studio is responding. We’re producing a lot of interesting stuff and trying to stay out front, so my role is evolving as we take on more projects. I also continue to write traditional novels like Thirteen Days to Midnight. I still love writing straight up books, and that takes a lot of time.
MA: You’ve managed to sustain an intense publication schedule with the Skeleton Creek series, 39 Clues, 13 Days to Midnight, and now Trackers. How do you manage the publication schedule?
PC: I’ve heard of this thing called writers block, which I don’t completely understand, because I have the opposite problem. I can’t stop creating. But I also work very, very hard at this. It’s never easy developing characters, a story, and a world no matter what medium you’re working in. I only sleep on the weekends, which also helps.
MA: The books in the Skeleton Creek series utilize a rather distinct plastic cover. Why did you make that design choice?
PC: I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. Chris Stengel, a marvelous designer at Scholastic, came up with the idea to package with a plastic slip-sleeve. I personally think it’s brilliant, because it sends a very powerful message: this is a book and a movie at the same time.
MA: While writing your novels, to what extent do you attempt to make the stories accessible for readers who don’t view the video content as soon as you provide the access codes?
PC: This is a sticky subject for me but I’m glad you asked. The purist, that is to say the person who consumes Skeleton Creek or TRACKERS the way they were intended to be consumed, will read and watch the stories in order. For me, that decision is paramount to the experience. It’s the right way to do it, and I say this knowing that it can be frustrating at times. My view is that the occasional frustration is part of the magic. Unfortunately the magic is totally lost on many adults (and in particular adult reviewers of certain old school publications).
Here’s the rundown on this:
– You’re a young reader, 10-15 years old, and you’re halfway through the book and come to a video prompt but you’re someplace where you can’t get online so you have to wait. Where I come from we call that delayed gratification. You simply have to wait or get your lazy butt out of bed and go find a computer. And that’s a good thing! I want young readers chomping at the bit to get on with the story, because it creates a dynamic in which that feeling carries through to the printed pages. Not only does a young reader want those videos, by association, they want those words – they’ll keep reading. And let’s be honest, most tweens and teens are so plugged in that the idea of being off the grid for more than a few hours is simply not realistic. If they’re checking Facebook a couple times a day, they’re in a position to watch the videos. On the off chance that a reader can’t get to a computer when they want to, we make every video available for free at iTunes and we make them available on iPhones, Android phones, iPads, and iTouches – if a reader doesn’t want to get out of their chair they don’t have to.
– Probably the thing that drives me batty the most is when I see a review from someone who did not follow the rules. Either they’ve read the book and skipped the videos entirely or they’ve read the entire book and then watched all the videos at the end. The only way that makes for a fair review of these books is if they also review every other book in the same way. Skip chunks of pages and never read them or read them at the end in one big clump. That’s going to be a marginal reading experience at best, and it’s exactly what happens when people consume these stories in a way they were never intended to be experienced. Sometimes I think of Skeleton Creek and TRACKERS as the Rap music of publishing. Adults don’t always get it, but the intended audience sees something important happening here: this story gets me, it knows where I’m at, it understands what drives me.
MA: Additionally, how long do you intend on hosting the video files on SarahFincher.com?
PC: We will host the videos for as long as the books are in print, but it won’t matter. Every video goes viral on Youtube and a lot of other places. Apple isn’t shutting down the iTunes store anytime soon, and you can get all the videos there for free. A hundred years from now it will be easier to find a TRACKERS video than it will be to find a TRACKERS book. Video wants to be free and everywhere, and it will have its way whether we like it or not.
MA: You and your team have invested a lot of effort into developing your story’s universe through Skeleton Creek Is Real and more recently with activity on the Skeleton Creek Investigations pages.
PC: No comment.
MA: What can we expect from Skeleton Creek Book 3?
PC: The Crossbones (also the title of III) is bigger, badder, awesomer then previously thought (I have just freaked out in print, which I promised I wouldn’t do. Dang it.). SCIII will take readers to some of the most haunted places in the country, reveal some pretty shocking info about certain characters, and open the door to The Raven.
I’ve said too much.
MA: How did you become involved with The 39 Clues series?
PC: I begged. True story.
MA: How did the process of working on The 39 Clues: The Black Circle differ from your work on other projects?
PC: That project is, top to bottom, totally world class. The writers, the publisher, the tech, the story and characters – it’s all capturing the imaginations of millions of kids for a reason: Scholastic created a masterpiece. I was lucky enough to contribute and I had a great experience writing The Black Circle. I’d do it again if only they’d ask me to (I have a small hope that someone at Scholastic is reading this).
MA: Can you tell us a little about your newest project, Trackers?
PC: TRACKERS is a spy thriller about a kid named Adam Henderson and his three best friends on the trail of the worlds greatest hacker; lots of action, gadgets, and mystery. Readers get to watch the most action packed scenes, play the same online games the characters play, and explore locations with an online GPS. For Skeleton Creek readers the format will be familiar – read 20 or so pages, go online and watch part of the story. TRACKERS isn’t a ghost story, so it’s not scary, which should open the format to an even wider audience. And the ARG elements in TRACKERS are going to be amazing. Keep an eye on www.trackersbook.com/#/missions or stay plugged in at the Facebook site at www.facebook.com/trackersbook. Adam Henderson will be launching a series of online missions and games that will expand the TRACKERS universe over the summer. Should be interesting.
Thank you for the questions! I enjoyed answering them. For anyone interested in other places to plug in, there are many! Here ya go: