I started writing over a decade ago. Children’s fiction, mostly middle grade although I tried my hand at a chapter book or two as well. I did everything a writer should do. Worked on my craft, learned about the industry as I went, diligently researched agents when I had a completed manuscript I thought worthy of submission (turns out I was wrong about that, by the way). Back then it was all by snail mail. You queried an agent and included an SASE for their response. The very first full-request I got needed to be printed out and mailed in a manuscript box.
That is how long I’ve been at this.
I watched from the sidelines during the early days of the digital disruption. I watched as Jeff Bezos announce the first Kindle to come to market and watched the industry roundly condemn ebooks as a fad. The publishing industry, for the most part, ignored digital believing (and hoping) it would just go away. I on the other hand was transfixed, as if a new pathway to a whole new type of storytelling was emerging before our eyes.
Transmedia became a buzzword and, to my mind, represented this new pathway: an inherently cross-platform and immersive form of storytelling where every part adds something new to the whole. The best way to explain transmedia is to explain what it is not. Transmedia is not a movie based on a book. Transmedia is The Walking Dead webisodes, where a sub-character or sub-plot is further explored.
Transmedia changed the way I thought about books and changed the way I thought about storytelling. Enter Strangetown, which was first conceived and written as a digital first middle grade serial. My brain was on fire with the idea of an immersive, interactive piece of fiction that would be delivered to the reader (in this case, middle grade readers ages roughly 10 – 13) on the devices they were spending an increasing amount of time on (tablets and smart phones). At the end of the story’s run, a collector’s print edition would be released complete with story extras (illustrated maps, deleted scenes etc.) much in the same way collectible DVD sets come with director’s cuts.
The story itself was inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, LOST. I loved the idea of the place (the Island, Strangetown) becoming a character in and of itself, and the idea of a large, diverse cast of characters who were all somehow interconnected with each other and to their mysterious surroundings. To do this well, the storyworld needed to be layered and complex. I spent over a year on world building alone. In fact, very little of STRANGETOWN has been written to date, but 14 “episodes” (each that would run a novelette in length) are fully outlined in excruciating detail. I know every character’s backstory, the history of the town, and exactly what happens in the final, concluding “chapter”. The reason for this goes back to immersion and interactivity. It was my intention to leave room for readers to affect outcomes. Not something that can happen with a static book.
I began querying the first installment and the requests came in. And so to did the rejections – fast and furious.
Can’t be done.
Kids don’t like ebooks.
I can’t sell just the digital rights.
Kids don’t have access to tech.
I don’t know what you mean by “digital first.”
I also heard (a lot)…
Love the concept. Can you turn this into a traditional stand-alone middle grade novel?
I tried. I really did. Maybe my heart just wasn’t in it because I was so convinced they were wrong. Kids do prefer print books, I will give you that, but what about the reluctant reader? In my heart I felt the industry was missing the mark by not thinking more outside-the-book, and to this day I argue that reading should not be the most boring thing a kid does on a tablet. I also knew that kids did have access to these devices and studies have shown that this access, remarkably, crosses the socio-economic divide.
Or maybe STRANGETOWN just didn’t work as a traditional stand-alone. And maybe, just maybe, after all those years of writing traditional books that never sold…maybe I was better suited for this type of storytelling.
Things have changed a lot since I first started querying this project. Just a few months later the first YA digital only imprint was announced. Wattpad – coined the YouTube for readers – was becoming a real player. Digital start-ups were quickly becoming a dime-a-dozen and publishing began to (slowly) evolve. The television industry was being transformed as well. Netflix was giving the networks a run for their money and soon Amazon decided to get into the game. Amazon Studios launched with an open submission policy for features and TV pilots. I had always been fascinated by screenwriting, and so, I set out to teach myself the craft. Six (grueling) months later, I adapted Strangetown as a TV pilot geared towards the YA market and pitch it as the type of show you might find on The CW.
And now the journey has come full circle. About a month ago I started re-writing the YA pilot version as a narrative and began releasing it on Wattpad. Because interactivity is so important to me and to the story, Wattpad was the perfect platform. Each week I release a new chapter of Strangetown Part I: The Unnatural Disappearance of Callie Mae Baxter and with any luck, after these many, many years, perhaps Strangetown will finally find an audience.
Writing is now a journey that can be taken alongside the reader. But to do so, we must first agree to begin. And to begin, we must enter a place called STRANGETOWN.
Hilary Sierpinski is the Publicity Manager at The Story Plant, a content strategist and digital enthusiast who spends a great many of her waking hours rethinking author strategies in the new media landscape. She loves to connect with writers and readers online and can be found on Wattpad, Twitter and Facebook.