Don’t Be a Writer, Be a Creator

NYC - Independent Subway by wallyg

You know what’s never, ever happened to me as a transmedia writer? Rejection! Nope, I’ve never, ever received a transmedia rejection letter. That’s because there is no gatekeeper for the internet. You wanna tell a story on Twitter, set yourself up an account and let that bad boy rip. Write up a script, grab a video camera, and get that fucker shot and up on YouTube your own self.

-Andrea Phillips, Transmedia Writers Have More Fun

I’ve said often that publishers are effectively similar to venture capitalists (though rarely given credit as such in the “fail faster” meme), and the confirmation of Facebook’s move into location-based services and acquisition and planned shutdown of Hot Potato got me thinking about that, and what it means for up and coming writers, for whom many of the old rules of traditional publishing no longer apply.

Writers basically have two choices: they can build enough of a platform to entice an acquisition, or build one that’s bigger than just books and enables their long-term independence. (And by independence, I mean making a sustainable living, not just self-publishing your book via Amazon or Lulu or Smashwords and declaring yourself an “indie”.)

Similar to work-for-hire vs. creator-owned, it’s evolving into the difference between being a writer and creator. In the digital era, writers sell stories, while creators build storyworlds.

The former is a transaction-based existence focused on the traditional publication of books or articles, with everything else viewed as ancillary. The latter is an approach that sees traditional publishing as just one of many ways via which a storyworld — your fictional universe — can be experienced, and focuses on your ability to reach and engage with readers across a variety of channels.

Neither path is necessarily “better” — there will always be a need for transactional writers [though their value is steadily dropping as “content” itself has been steadily devalued in the Web 2.0 world; don’t get me started] — but there’s evidence that creators will have more control over their futures as the industry evolves. As new formats, media and devices come along, creators with well-conceived platforms will be better positioned to make the most of them.

Also, as Andrea noted, transmedia writers (aka creators) have more fun!

Genre writers, in particular, are ideal creators as their work is especially conducive to transmedia development thanks to a tendency toward serial storytelling, archetypal characters and imagined worlds. Non-fiction writers can build transmedia experiences around their particular expertise, too, especially if it’s in an area where things are constantly changing or continuing education is a requirement. (It’s every social media guru’s wet dream!)

In the comics world, where transmedia has been a way of life for many years, there are numerous examples of the difference between writers and creators. Marvel and DC have always employed bullpens of work-for-hire writers to spin new (or, in some cases, rehashed) stories featuring their most popular intellectual properties characters, some of whom have also found success with their creator-owned projects, like Frank Miller’s SIN CITY and Robert Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD.

Outside of the Big Two Bullpens, Brian Lee O’Malley’s SCOTT PILGRIM is another creator-owned comic that’s gone beyond the book, while Rich Burlew’s webcomic, The Order of the Stick, has blossomed into a mini-transmedia empire that includes books, games and T-shirts. (OOTS totally screams WiiWare RPG! Somebody needs to make it happen.)

With so many new opportunities for writers to tell stories and reach and engage with (and sell to) their readers directly, why would you ever want to limit yourself to just writing and publishing a book?

[NOTE: This post was inspired by, and contains excerpts from, my article “Futurama” (Writer’s Digest, Sept 2010), which poses 10 questions all writers should be thinking about as they contemplate the future of publishing and their place in it.]

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7 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Writer, Be a Creator

  1. I’m going to guess that the vast majority of writers out there are pretty clueless when it comes to transmedia, both in knowledge and ability. While some will certainly take advantage, 99% won’t. Certainly a subject for writer’s conferences/workshops to pick up on. Publishers are or should be working on this, at least for books that are targeted to audiences that access transmedia. Or, maybe not. Pubs haven’t generally been on the ball with the whole forward thinking thing.

  2. With you on this, Guy. Traditional publishers can help transmedia creators by providing the capital to pay subs such as mobile app designers and to help with DRM of video content, etc. Dreaming over multiple platforms can be expensive! We individual multimedia producers need partners who have trust and $$$.

  3. Guy, the reason transactional writers as you call them will have to work harder than creators in the future is the same as it has always been, and is the same reason as some industries have limited lifespans, and some workers find it harder to get new employment if the industry that supports them fails, and it has to do with transferability and the level of operation. What creators are selling is an idea, and that idea has many casings, and those shells are secondary to the business model. The copywriter or novelist has a product with a set of skills that go to making it, and if the market for that product dries they will find it much harder to adapt. If the market for one of the creator’s products tanks they just wrap their idea in another shell and carry on.

  4. Yes! I really like what you’re saying here. An aspect of this is looking beyond making it through the “golden gates of publishing”, which for so many authors is the raison d’etre as a writer, rather than looking at what’s needed to build a platform and moreover, a career, that sustains itself. It’s not just about the book. It can’t be any longer, this is clear. The book (at least in non-fiction) is one part of a much bigger picture – nurturing that picture keeps authors’ eyes/minds/hearts on what really counts. Then things fall into place easier.

    Thanks for this…

  5. I’m not really sure I understand the point of these exhortations telling writers to get into other mediums. Many genre fiction writers today know all about the potential for licensing their properties. Just look at Jim Butcher, who has graphic novels, had a TV show and even has a tabletop RPG. I don’t think it’s as much a question of willingness to create content in other mediums as it is ability and access to groups that currently create other types of media.
    First, there are already tons of writers who write for TV, film, video games and comics. In fact part of the problem is that there really aren’t that many open positions in these fields due to the closed nature of these other industries and the limited demand for writers.
    So what about doing it yourself? I don’t know many writers who think books are the only way to go; the reason most writers focus on books is because they don’t have the skills to create properties in other mediums nor do they have the connections who can help them bring their worlds to life in games, films, comics, etc.
    When you say “transmedia creator,” you’re talking about an individual with a much broader range of skills and connections than your typical writer. At the end of the day, for most writers, becoming a transmedia creator is going to mean working with video game studios, indie game developers, film studios, indie filmmakers and partnering with artists for graphic novels/comics.
    This will also often mean paying them for their services. Most people in these industries have plenty of ideas of their own, so unless you can either do it yourself, or bankroll a project, creating a transmedia property often isn’t a reasonable goal or people who primarily are used to writing novels.
    To really help writers become transmedia creators, writers will need info on writing scripts for comics, writing screenplays and on creating material for games, along with business/networking info for recruiting artists, programmers, filmmakers and musicians to their causes.
    It IS getting easier to go the DIY route, but the DIY route in most other media is just as difficult, if not moreso, than it is in the world of publishing.

    1. Greg, I didn’t state or imply that it’s an easy transition, just that it’s one more writers need to be aware of and explore. For every Jim Butcher, there’s 1,000 aspiring writers who think a book deal is the end-all, be-all and everything they do is focused on that goal.

      Some will develop the skills to go completely DIY, while others will become more knowledgeable about the options available to them and be able to intelligently look for the right partners and not get screwed over. And for those not interested in either of those options, they’ll continue to compete for transactional assignments.

      Different strokes for different folks. It’s all good!

    2. I see where you are coming from with this Greg but feel that really visual artists, game programmers, filmmakers and musicians are in the same boat when it comes to wanting to express their vision as part of a collaborative venture. Personally I feel most of these artists (and I consider story telling an art from) can benefit from contributing to a collaborative medium that can have much more reach and impact. The writer who only sells a written story in my mind is the same as the artist selling a print or collection of a paintings.

      “Most people in these industries have plenty of ideas of their own” True and sometimes this is unfortunate as (aside from the writer/ other artist hybrids who create entire graphic novels, or movies) they are failing to recognize how much more goes into good writing and good story telling than the choice of words. I have seen amazing directors try to write their first script and it’s horrendous. I have seen artists with excellent visual story telling ability and technique breathtakingly portraying a cliche plot ,set in an unbelievable world , populated by boring inconsistent or flat characters , doing things the audience could care less about, while in their dialog making every cringe worthy mistake of the most rank amateur writer. I have seen programmers try to make games with nauseating art, and even whole game studios spend millions on CG artists , programmers, dozens cinematic directors , and animators for an RPG only to have winged the “epic” story using something cobbled together by the producers and ripped off from old episodes of star trek . The result was a crippling flaw in the final product that essential ruined all the other elements. For some reason writing seems to be one of the few arts that everyone thinks is so easy they can do it on the spot with little to no investment in the craft. How ever for most media projects that in anyway need to tell a story as part of their appeal a professional writer is crucial to the product at best living up to it’s potential and at more likely insure any one actually cares or can’t sit through/finish the entire experience without losing interest. You will not often see a writer suddenly try to act , create special effects, draw or code spontaneously with no prior experience but for some reason everyone thinks they can write and the awful results/products even get released. Yet they are every bit as terrible as a movie in which the script writer suddenly said hey I’ll play the lead or work the camera how hard can it be ?

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