Noah J Nelson on Friday, Sep. 28th
If you’ve spent any time online in the indie author, genre fiction, transmedia or gamer communities there’s a good chance you’ve run across Chuck Wendig. The Pennsylvania– Pennsyltucky if you ask him– based writer is having the biggest year of his career yet. Multiple novels have stormed into the lives of genre fiction fans. Wendig’s social media presence, thanks to a salty Twitter feed and his writing blog Terribleminds, keeps spreading like a wave of the undead.
The down and dirty novels Blackbirds and Mockingbird feature the character Miriam Black; a young woman gifted, if you can call it that, with the ability to see how people will die. Blackbirds, the first book in the series, became Wendig’s bête noire years ago. That one story that wouldn’t go away and refused to yield up it’s secrets. The drive to solve the mystery he’d created led Wendig down a strange road. One that sees him as a speaker at next month’s StoryWorld conference, a global gathering for transmedia storytellers.
StoryWorld may be the next stop, but Wendig’s path began with one of the least glamorous gigs a genre writer can have: role-playing games. This is also where I first came across his work, as an avid reader of White Wolf Game Studios’ dark fantasy and horror role playing games. When Wendig reappeared on my radar years later thanks to Twitter, I flashed back on those early years of his career. How he made the leap from RPGs to novels was the first mystery I wanted out to solve when we finally settled down for a formal interview after years of online chatting.
“Working in gaming was a way to pay the bills with writing. It wasn’t my end goal,” Wendig told me.
“When it came time that a writer’s all-call got posted online for the first Hunter iteration– Hunter: The Reckoning– they said ‘Well give us a thousand words about Hunter: The Reckoning and what you think about it.’ I wrote some pretentious ass essay about external and internal loci of fear.”
It did the trick.
“They totally bought it hook line and sinker. Totally bought bought my pretentious line of bullshit and from there they set me up with a book. They liked the work that I did for that book. It continued on and on for 10-plus years working for them.”
There were other jobs: office work, video games journalism, all the while doing his best to crank out the word count for his own projects. Wendig preferred early mornings for writing.
“You come home from a day of work and your brain is toast. It’s just a gooey, puzzle-y treacle.”
At some point along the way the seed for Blackbirds came along. Wendig knew that there was something special about the story of Miriam Black, but he couldn’t find the ending. While locked in battle with the story he came across a local screenwriting competition. The prize?
“A year long mentorship with a screenwriter. The screenwriter in this case was Steven Susco who wrote both of the Grudge films, Red, High School and a couple of other things. So I signed on for that.”
Wendig had a “secret, sinister goal.” He was going to use he mentorship to solve the problems he was having with Blackbirds.
“Steven’s whole thing was adaptations. Taking existing material and adapting it to the screen, or taking one film and adapting it to an American audience. He’s very good at adaptation so I thought ‘I want to adapt my novel Blackbirds for the screen.’ Ultimately the goal of that was to get the thing done and figure out the story. It was sort of like a recursive loop there.”
Wendig called the mentorship “a weird prize, because it’s like homework for a year”.
Under Susco he took to heart the fundamentals of screenwriting, outlining and storytelling as a craft. It was Susco who introduced him to filmmaker and transmedia pioneer Lance Weiler. The two would become writing partners, working on the Emmy nominated documentary/online narrative hybrid Collapsus (2010) and the transmedia project Pandemic (2011).
Years of work from just trying to suss out how a novel was supposed to end.
“That’s sort of the weird journey, and then the novel thing took off… it’s been a strange little career.”
THE PANDEMIC EXPERIMENT
While at Sundance in 2011 I got to play as part of the first run of the Pandemic experience. The game was ambitious and more than a little dynamic. At one point online fans of the project, thanks to the work that Wendig was doing organizing the Twitter side of the narrative, made the leap from passive participants to would-be puppet masters.
While I tried to solve a scavenger hunt puzzle these fans found a way to reach me via the special phone I had been issued. My hunt became a wild goose chase as they fed me their own vision of Weiler and Wendig’s world. The attempt to blend these disparate narrative tools: film, social media, and real life interactive elements reminded me of the chaos I faced while running live-action RPGs. Real, live players with their own definitions of fun are a lot harder to manage than characters on a printed page.
“The role playing game comparison is actually a surprisingly apt one. It really is like an RPG,” said Wendig. “At the table you become frequently aware that you can’t control other people. As much as you’d like to shuffle them around and railroad them towards certain conclusions you realize that’s not all that possible. They’re going to do what they’re going to do to create their own stories.”
Wendig says that the interactive lesson he learned on Pandemic was that the best thing you can do for an audience is create a framework for them to tell their own stories.
Pandemic was Wendig’s second big transmedia project, although he told me that there are those who would say Collapsus doesn’t really count. That project’s use of a single interface split into three frames with multiple types of content no longer fits some institutions’ definitions of transmedia.
“Transmedia right now is in a really weird space. I don’t know that it knows what it is, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that some people don’t think that’s a good thing. What you have is a lot of people trying to define it.”
The Producer’s Guild of America has one definition while academics, writers, and game developers all have been known to put forward others.
“It’s starting to mean X-Y-Z, which means it can never be A-B-C. It’s got to be on X number of screens and it’s got to have certain interactivity and have technological underpinnings. But what if we do something that’s purely analog? A model of scarcity that’s based on printed items? Artifacts in the real world? What if I use the real world as my ‘medium’?”
One area that has gained a lot of focus, all but moving to consensus in recent years, is that to call a project “transmedia” means the work should appear on multiple platforms. Wendig sees a looming problem here.
“We are moving towards more unified platforms [rather] than more separated. So much is drilling down to phones and tablets, and so much is happening on a single device as opposed to right now. Transmedia plays across the media space because we’re very fractured technologically.
“Why establish rules now that create storytelling that doesn’t play well with unified platforms if that’s the way we’re going? Especially when a single device like a tablet has multiple apps or multiple “platforms” in a single platform. Any time you get definitions like that I think you’re delaying the power of what transmedia could be.”
The definitions game is in some ways a distraction. What really matters is the bleeding edge of media that “transmedia” is used to describe.
“For as much as I’m something of an acolyte of what transmedia is or what it wants to be, ultimately I like storytelling in all forms. That’s why I’m attracted to transmedia. I’m not attracted to multiple platforms. I’m attracted to storytelling in new ways,” said Wendig. “What really is interesting for me is going to StoryWorld and seeing what people are doing across games and more traditional narratives and mash all that stuff up. What technology is going to bring to the table and how it’s going to change storytelling.”